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Jakarta Post

Let’s not kid ourselves. Indonesia is unlikely to be COVID-19-free. And that’s not our biggest problem.

  • Ary Hermawan

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Sat, February 29, 2020   /   03:01 pm
Let’s not kid ourselves. Indonesia is unlikely to be COVID-19-free. And that’s not our biggest problem. A person (left) who has recovered from the COVID-19 coronavirus infection donates plasma in Zouping in China's eastern Shandong province on Friday, aimed at curing infected patients in severe and critical conditions. China reported 44 more deaths from the novel coronavirus on Friday and 327 fresh cases, the lowest daily figure for new infections in more than a month. (Photo by STR / AFP) (AFP/STR )

Okay, here’s the deal. If you believe in an interventionist God who cares about national boundaries and will answer your prayers to protect this country from a plague, that’s your business.

But let me tell you this: Indonesia is unlikely to be free of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) that has infected thousands of people in more than 50 countries. And you need to be concerned that, as of now, the government has not been fully transparent about how it is handling the situation.

Indeed, the government has taken measures to contain the virus. It has screened people arriving at airports and seaports, imposed an entry ban on travelers from China, isolated patients suspected of carrying the deadly virus and tested them for confirmation.

But questions linger over whether the measures are effective and whether government officials are doing it right. Indonesia may have yet to report a single COVID-19 case, but the country is by no means free from the lethal virus.

Alas, we are not just being skeptical, or overly suspicious. It is a fact that a Chinese national who traveled from Wuhan to Bali before the Chinese city – the epicenter of the virus outbreak – was locked down tested positive for the disease eight days after the trip. It is likely that the Chinese man, who lives in Huainan, contracted the virus in Wuhan—which has a direct flight route to Bali—and was carrying the virus while staying on the resort island.

Read also: Govt downplays reports of Chinese tourist who tested positive for coronavirus after Bali sojourn

The incident shows that screening at airports may not be effective, and that’s perhaps not entirely the government’s fault, since carriers of the virus may show no symptoms at all. It was later revealed that at least three other foreign nationals—two Japanese and a New Zealander—who were coronavirus-positive had recently visited or transited in Indonesia.

So, it is wrong to say that the coronavirus has yet to reach Indonesia. It already did. It just went undetected—at least four times!

This is already a cause for concern. The disease, while less deadly than its relative, SARS, is highly contagious, and Indonesia is not immune to it. At least 11 Indonesians have been diagnosed with COVID-19 overseas.

It is therefore highly likely that some Indonesians contracted the virus but went undetected because many cases, as a recent study shows, are only mild, while the government apparently only tests people suspected of having severe cases of the disease.

Indonesia’s Balitbangkes, the sole agency tasked with testing suspected coronavirus patients, has only concluded around 140 lab tests. To put things in perspective, as of Feb. 26, the United Kingdom has conducted 7,132 tests, 13 of which have come back positive.

It appears that the problem lies with the fact that the government is worried more about the social and economic impact of a mass hysteria created by the virus outbreak than the outbreak itself, which poses an extremely serious threat to public health.

Read also: State budget deficit to widen as government counters virus effects: Sri Mulyani

This attitude was evident when Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto came without masks or any safety protocol to a Jakarta building in which a Chinese man was believed to have the coronavirus. The man only had a sore throat, the minister said, telling reporters to be careful in reporting “unsettling” information. 

Since then, Indonesia, according to the minister, has been “virus-free”, even though public information regarding suspected COVID-19 cases has been quite limited, with news of prominent cases usually broken down by the media.

In the meantime, officials are scrambling to cushion the economic impacts of the outbreak by spending millions of dollars to subsidize tourism and even pay foreign social media influencers (about US$5.2 million) to bring foreign tourists to “virus-free” Indonesia.

The problem is, many have cast doubt on our claim that we are not affected by the outbreak (Saudi Arabia has imposed a travel ban on Indonesian travelers, by the way). If anything, people worldwide are advised to avoid traveling, especially when the virus is fast spreading all over the world.

Such an incentive is a waste of money at best. Since we only impose a travel ban on China, the policy could further expose us to contagion from other countries that are struggling to contain the virus, such as South Korea, Iran and Italy. 

Read also: Indonesia pressured to do more to detect coronavirus amid zero reported cases

One may argue that the incentives were primarily aimed at encouraging local tourists, but how sure are we that we have done what it takes to contain COVID-19? Other countries have locked down cities, shut down schools and amusement parks, canceled Friday prayers and sport events just to be safe. What have we done?

With the outbreak expected to slash growth by around 0.3 percentage points, the government’s attempt to protect the economy is understandable. But it must get its priorities right: We could be facing an imminent pandemic.

It just makes no sense that the government refused to conduct throat swab tests on Indonesian students evacuated from Wuhan for financial reasons (one official bizarrely claimed that the reagent used for the test cost Rp 1 billion or about $71,548), but is paying millions of dollars to some YouTubers to boost tourism.

To be clear, I am no health expert who could precisely tell the severity of the COVID-19 situation in Indonesia. But as a citizen, I am now more concerned by the lack of transparency and seriousness in how the government is handling the situation. 

I could be wrong, but as the old adage goes: Prevention is better than cure.