The government’s repeated warnings often go unheeded as irrationality prevails amidst the growing panic over news of the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Indonesia in the past week.
Supermarkets reported panic buying within hours of the government announcing Indonesia’s first two confirmed cases of COVID-19 on March 2. One item in huge demand, which has become scarce, is face masks.
This happened in spite of government’s assurances, backed by experts and doctors, that masks are unnecessary except for health workers and sick people.
By Monday, one week after President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced Indonesia had joined the rest of the world in being infected by the virus, the number of confirmed cases has jumped to 19. Dozens more are currently being observed by hospitals.
The rush to buy face masks has inevitably led to shortages and skyrocketing prices.
“I cannot keep them in stock as it was very hard to find masks in suppliers,” Dyah, the owner of a small drug store in West Jakarta, told The Jakarta Post on Friday.
“When I managed to find them, they were very expensive as well,” she said, adding that a box of 50 masks now sells for about Rp 190,000 (US$13.50), up from its normal price of Rp 25,000.
The shortage may also have been caused by Indonesia exporting masks in large quantities to China when the coronavirus started to spread there in January. Indonesia has since banned further exports. Singaporeans and Malaysians visiting Indonesia in January and February were seen buying up face masks at Jakarta’s convenient stores.
Prices had been gradually increasing since but they jumped after news of the first two confirmed COVID-19 cases last week.
As the most commonly sought masks, the N95, which can filter 95 percent of dust particles from air, are starting to disappear and people are turning to surgical masks, usually available at drug stores, for Rp 480,000 a box.
There are also hoarders profiteering on the panic buying.
The National Police’s Criminal Investigation Department (Bareskrim) reported 17 cases of 30 distributors hoarding more than 800 boxes of masks.
They had been holding onto their supply, allegedly waiting for the announcement of the first confirmed cases to sell the masks at huge markups, North Jakarta Police chief Sr. Comr. Budhi Herdi Susianto was quoted by kompas.com as saying after the arrest of two suspects in his jurisdiction.
Coordinating Legal, Political and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD had called the mask hoarding by businesses “an economic crime”.
The National Consumer Protection Agency (BPKN) chairman Ardiansyah Parman says police could charge profiteers with hoarding essential goods, which under the 2014 Trade Law is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison or a fine of Rp 50 billion.
Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto, who had made several public gaffes in his handling of the coronavirus, blamed the high prices of masks on the public. “Who asked you to buy?” he demanded, lashing out at a journalist who turned up wearing a mask to a media briefing about the first confirmed cases last week.
The Health Ministry and the World Health Organization have repeatedly reminded the public that they only need to use the masks when they are sick.
“Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing,” said WHO advises on its website. “If you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with suspected 2019-nCoV infection.”
Zubairi Djoerban, head of the Indonesian Doctors Association’s coronavirus task force, said wearing masks to prevent COVID-19 would not be effective for healthy individuals.
“If you are not used to wearing a mask, you may touch your face more often and that would increase the risk of contracting a disease,” he told the Post on Monday.
Bhima Yudhistira, an economist at the Institute for Development of Economics and Finance, said he suspected the traders orchestrated the scarcity of face masks.
“This is disaster capitalism. Someone is looking to benefit from the situation,” Bhima told the Post on Friday.
“Any hoarding that could potentially disturb and harm the community must be stopped because it causes scarcity and price hikes.”
Naufal Abdurrahman Supangkat, a 21-year-old student living in South Jakarta, dispelled his fear over the disease and decided to wash his hands frequently to reduce his risk.
“As long as I’m going to places that I know are safe, I see no need of wearing a mask outside,” he said, adding that he prefers to wash his hands regularly, in line with advice from WHO, or use hand sanitizer. (mfp)
-- Made Anthony Iswara contributed to this story.