The Jakarta Post
Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto might not want to appear alarmist amid fears of the global spread of the new coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, but by visiting the BRI building in Jakarta on Thursday without wearing a face mask after a Chinese employee was reported to have had a fever — a common symptom of the virus — he sent the wrong message about the health risk emergency.
The World Health Organization has yet to declare the coronavirus a global emergency, but the number of confirmed cases and deaths continues to rise in China and other countries. As of Sunday, at least 56 deaths had been reported, all in China, and almost 2,000 confirmed cases have been recorded worldwide, including in neighboring Singapore and Malaysia.
And while the Chinese government has imposed lockdowns on at least 15 cities to contain the spread of the virus, little is known about the virus, let alone the cure.
Indonesia already has experiences and capabilities in handling outbreaks since it was the country worst-affected by the avian influenza (H5N1) outbreak that killed 168 people in the country and 286 in the rest of the world between 2003 and 2017, according to the WHO.
While none were fatal, the country also handled cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) — other ailments caused by different strains of coronavirus. During the nine month outbreak from 2002 to 2003, SARS, first reported in Guangzhou, China, killed more than 775 people, mostly in China and Hong Kong. Initially discovered in Jordan in 2012, MERS caused 858 deaths up until last year, mostly in Saudi Arabia.
Until the WHO issues a new protocol to handle the current outbreak, it would be better for the country to exercise the same level of preparedness implemented during the bird flu emergency.
Anyone that reports pneumonia-like symptoms should be sent to one of the 100 hospitals that have been named as referral hospitals by the Health Ministry. When the hospitals suspect the patient shows symptoms, they should isolate them and send swab samples to the ministry, which has the authority to confirm the cases.
To prevent panic, other hospitals and authorities should not confirm nor declare believed cases, unless they receive information from the ministry. It is also important for the ministry to act swiftly to respond to suspected cases.
The government also needs to keep in close contact with Indonesians in Wuhan and other cities in China. It is imperative to keep track of their health and inform their families. If an evacuation plan is prepared, like the United States has done for its citizens, it should be done immediately, before the situation in China worsens and they begin to fall sick.
Remaining alert and acting swiftly should be the keywords in responding to the outbreak. This will be another test of whether the government is capable of protecting its citizens at home and abroad.