The Jakarta Post
Foreign missions in Indonesia are racing against time to get their citizens home before transport restrictions come into full effect, as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise and concerns over the country’s healthcare capabilities deepen.
The United States Embassy became the first foreign mission to announce that family members of its staff who are under 21 years of age must immediately leave the country.
“The Department of State made this decision due to evidence of COVID-19 in Indonesia, current Indonesian medical capacity, and current availability of flights out of Indonesia,” the embassy said in a statement published on Thursday.
Washington has already urged its citizens not to travel to the archipelago “due to the Global Health Advisory and Embassy Jakarta’s limited capacity to provide support to US citizens,” it said in an online travel advisory for Indonesia.
It follows a March 14 decision to authorize the departure of US personnel and family members “from any diplomatic [...] post in the world who have determined they are at higher risk if exposed to COVID-19 or who have requested departure based on a commensurate justification”.
The US mission has a track record of taking early precautionary measures for its citizens, sometimes well before a serious incident occurs.
In 2016, the US Embassy reportedly sent out warnings to its citizens to avoid the area around Sarinah Plaza and the Sari Pan Pacific Hotel in Central Jakarta, just hours before terrorists launched a shooting spree there.
In 1998, the embassy moved to evacuate all staffers to Singapore before airlifting them home, days before massive riots broke out all across Jakarta.
Meanwhile, Indonesia’s closest neighbor Australia also updated its travel advisory with strong wording and advised its citizens to leave the country.
“If you’re an Australian tourist in Bali [or Indonesia more broadly] leave now – don’t delay your departure. If you’re a long-term Australian resident of Indonesia, consider whether you have the support and access to effective health services you and your family will need in what will be a hugely challenging period for local authorities and service providers. Many services will not be available,” Canberra said in its latest travel advisory updated on Thursday.
The update follows measures last week to offer non-essential staff and family members from Australian diplomatic posts across the country the opportunity to return to Australia before air travel is completely restricted.
Other countries have meanwhile been more reserved in their actions, at a time when COVID-19 has infected more than 1,000 people in Indonesia and killed 87 people as of Friday.
European Union Ambassador to Indonesia Vincent Piket said his approach was to “strike a balance between business continuity and the safety of our staff and their dependents”.
He said the EU delegation was in full teleworking mode and all staff were asked to work from home. Meanwhile, all nonessential staff were authorized to return to Europe with their families.
“The EU delegation and the embassies of all EU member states work together for the repatriation of EU travelers stranded in Indonesia due to the lack of flights. Our first priority is to bring home the elderly, other vulnerable persons and families with children,” Piket said in a statement to The Jakarta Post on Friday.
British Ambassador to Indonesia Owen Jenkins said that British nationals staying in Indonesia in the short term should immediately weigh their options as more airports had closed and more airlines had suspended flights.
“If you can think of any circumstances at all where you would wish to be in the UK over the next few months, we strongly advise you to leave,” Jenkins said in a video posted on the embassy’s Twitter account on Wednesday.
The COVID-19 outbreak has put a massive strain on Indonesia’s healthcare system, with reports of inadequate medical supplies and the deaths of hospital workers amid a surge of new cases.
A hospital crisis looms as reports indicate inadequate facilities to treat COVID-19 patients, while protective gear is in short supply in both referral and regular hospitals across the country.
Foreign missions have identified these shortcomings and communicated them to their citizens. The Australian Embassy, for instance, said that critical care facilities are “significantly below the standards available” at home.
While such policies might indicate distrust in the Indonesian healthcare system, it also poses even greater risks for these foreign citizens, said Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an international relations research professor at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences’ (LIPI) Center for Political Studies.
“Sending children back to the US is even riskier – they’d be flying extensively and transiting in hubs that bring together many people from around the world, so the risk of contracting the coronavirus might be even higher,” Dewi told the Post, in reference to the US policy.
Furthermore, she added, the healthcare systems in the US and in Europe also already faced huge pressures and had not shown any great successes either.
“Frankly, there is not one country that can give such assurances. What is certain is that long-haul travel – and especially cross-country travel – is reckless. People are asked to stay at home, not to engage in international travel and spread the virus further,” she said on Friday.
Globally, more than half a million people have been infected and some 24,000 people have died, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering. The US currently has the most cases.