With cryptic updates on the coronavirus situation and a refusal to reveal the nationality and location of the first fatality in Indonesia, the government has kept the public guessing about the invisible threat.
On Wednesday, the government’s spokesperson for COVID-19, Achmad Yurianto, who is also the Health Ministry’s director general for disease control and prevention, said the patient in Case 25 had died at around 2 a.m. on Wednesday after three days of treatment. He said the patient was a 53-year-old foreigner, but he stopped short of disclosing the nationality and location.
Since Monday, beginning with Case 7, Yurianto has refused to divulge the location of each patient and their nationality if they were foreigners, saying he would remain “consistent” in not naming locations.
This communication policy has raised questions from experts, journalists and the public. The opaque manner of providing information on Case 25 has created particular confusion. After the central government announced the first death in the country, the chairman of Bali’s COVID-19 task force, Dewa Made Indra, said a suspected COVID-19 patient had died at Bali’s Sanglah Hospital, and the patient was a foreigner. He said at first he did not know whether that patient was Case 25.
"Today, early in the morning, at 2:45 a.m., a foreign national under observation at Sanglah Hospital died," Dewa said at a press conference in Denpasar on Wednesday.
"Because this patient died in the isolation room, under observation, we tried to get confirmation from Jakarta. We hadn’t received her laboratory test results yet,” he said. “[After calling the ministry,] we were told that the patient who died was Case 25, who was announced as COVID-19 positive yesterday."
Both the Health Ministry and the Bali administration declined to reveal the patient’s nationality, but British media have reported that she was from the United Kingdom. A British Foreign Office statement received by The Jakarta Post said the office was “supporting the family of a British woman who has died in Indonesia” but stopped short of confirming that the woman was Case 25.
Also on Wednesday, the government announced seven new cases of infection, all Indonesians who had returned from abroad, but Yurianto did not reveal the countries the patients had come from, nor their current whereabouts.
Yurianto said the public did not need to know where COVID-19 patients’ lived, arguing that only the tracing team needed that information.
Some people and experts disagree.
The Public Information Commission (KIP), which monitors how the government meets the public’s right to information, said that, in cases that threaten the lives and interests of many people, it was the government’s duty to convey the information to the people.
Article 12 Verse 2 of KIP Regulation No. 1/2010 on standards of public information stipulates that the public agency has the obligation to immediately inform the public on any situation that could threaten people’s lives and public safety. One of them pertains to “the strain, distribution and location of potentially infectious diseases.”
“The optimal dissemination of information would reduce the risk of virus spread and increase people participation,” Arif Kuswardono, a KPI commissioner, told The Jakarta Post on Wednesday.
“A well-informed and well-educated community will not panic easily. The [people] can also understand how to take care of themselves, their families and their surroundings when facing virus threats,” he said.
Syahrizal Syarief, an epidemiologist at the University of Indonesia, said he did not understand the government’s reasoning in concealing the location of COVID-19 patients. Syarief said revealing the countries or locations such patients had been in was not a privacy violation.
The public, Syarief said, needed to be informed and included in tackling the epidemic.
“To achieve this, the government should be open-minded, so that the people can play a role in the process or at least make decisions for themselves. The government's policy of not sharing information regarding the geographical locations of case and the travel history of patients in imported cases [amounts to] a lack of openness […] that will cause distrust toward the government.”
Singapore, by contrast, has provided details on dates and locations of places or neighborhoods visited by coronavirus-positive patients. The data is updated daily and can be accessed by the public on the government’s website at moh.gov.sg.
An expert staff member at the Executive Office of the President, Dany Amrul Ichdan, said in a discussion on Wednesday that the government had been doing its best to “prevent, detect and respond” to COVID-19 cases. However, he said, it needed a specific approach in its information management.
“We cannot be as transparent as other countries. […] We have to be realistic about the behavior of Indonesians. When the first two cases were announced, people started panic buying, the [stock market index] dropped. […] There are many factors that make us different, our psychographic, lifestyle, character, mindset. And that’s our challenge,” Dany said.
Dany said a matter of concern was not just a nation’s health but also a nation’s economic conditions.
“I’m not saying that Indonesians are less wise, but people in other countries, when they are informed about the location of the coronavirus patients, they are wiser in how they react. When it happens in Indonesia, we tend to see more panic, we have seen it in Depok, so we want to do it without creating a negative domino effect,” he said.
Nila Moeloek, the former health minister who took part in the discussion, reminded the government to prioritize the health of citizens.
“Health is fundamental, Dany, but we always talk about the economy,” she said to Dany.