Indonesia has earned a dubious distinction over its Southeast Asian neighbours in recent weeks: its government insists there has not been a single confirmed case of the new coronavirus, despite multiple cases in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, among other regional nations.
But as the number of new quarantines continued to shoot up across Indonesia in recent days – including 68 Indonesians who have been told to stay at home for 14 days after returning to North Sumatra Province from China and 30 Chinese workers who returned to North Sulawesi Province after celebrating the Lunar New Year back home – there is a fear that confirmed cases will appear in force, if they haven’t already and have just been going unreported.
These fears have been fuelled by Indonesia’s poor performance in dealing with the H5N1 bird flu virus more than a decade ago, which killed 165 out of 197 infected Indonesians between 2005 and 2014 – an 84 per cent death rate. The complaints included not identifying and reporting outbreak clusters swiftly, or properly monitoring and culling populations of commercial fowl.
On Monday, the Ministry of Health – already under pressure from questions about undetected or unreported coronavirus cases and claims online that people had already died – dismissed a Harvard University study which concluded that Indonesia should already have confirmed infections.
“Basically, the study is only a mathematical model to predict the spread of the virus with independent variables based on the volume of international travellers,” Siswanto, head of the ministry’s research and development department, told journalists on Monday.
He said the ministry had examined 62 out of 64 samples in its possession of people suspected of being infected, and all tested negative.
“We have examined them properly,” said Siswanto, calling the Harvard study a mere prediction. “We should instead be grateful as we have no cases, despite the prediction of at least six confirmed cases.”
Whether this is true remains to be seen, but President Joko Widodo’s administration has not been resting on its laurels.
The authorities have set up a hotline for the public to report suspected coronavirus cases, and raised its travel alert to Singapore to “orange” after the number of confirmed cases in the city state surpassed 40, among them an Indonesian migrant worker.
Indonesia has readied 100 hospitals across the archipelago including three in Jakarta. Last week, the government chartered planes to evacuate about 240 Indonesians living in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, and quarantined them on the remote Natuna Islands for a fortnight.
Indonesia has also cancelled all incoming flights from China and put thermal detection equipment at its major airports. The travel ban resulted in some 5,000 Chinese travellers being stranded on Bali island – where tourists from China make up the second-largest visitors – although some were glad to extend their stay to avoid the risk of catching the coronavirus back home.
Senior cabinet officials have also begun formal deliberations on building a special isolation hospital for coronavirus patients, and future patients of other possible outbreaks.
“Just in case,” said Mahfud MD, the country’s security minister who chaired the first meeting last week, adding that the hospital should be built near a military base or air strip, and in a remote area, for easy transport of patients.
World Health Organisation (WHO) officials are working with the Indonesian government on identifying potential coronavirus cases, including at the country’s largest international airport in Jakarta, but have not said if they believed there was a case of infection in the sprawling archipelago.
Meanwhile, in an opinion piece published in the Bangkok Post on Tuesday, former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa highlighted Asean’s determination to implement regional and international agreements that came in the wake of Sars and bird flu in the 2000s, to combat disease outbreaks in a swift and decisive manner.
“In short, the region has been aware of the need to have complementary frameworks in order to effectively deal with emerging communicable diseases, as we are now again confronted with,” he wrote.
“The questions then are: why weren’t such principles and frameworks invoked in a timely manner when the present coronavirus outbreak came to light? Will the full potential of the already extant frameworks – at the very least to systematically share basic data on cases and to communicate, or better still, coordinate, policy responses – be triggered any time soon?”
And with entire cities in China locked down in unprecedented quarantine zones – along with their factories, office buildings, shopping areas and grocery stores – Indonesia, which is Southeast Asia’s largest economy, will also have to think about those potential impacts, from the financial hub of Jakarta to the tourist beaches of Bali and beyond, observers say.
“Operations here remain normal, for most of our members, but everyone is trying to prepare in case the virus takes hold in Indonesia,” said A. Lin Neumann, managing director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Indonesia, based in Jakarta.
“The economic impact remains to be seen, but if it goes on for several months, it seems certain to take a point or two off China’s GDP growth, and that will have an impact here,” Neumann said.
“Hotel occupancy is already down, business travel has slowed, and events in Singapore and elsewhere are being cancelled. We are maintaining our normal activities, but we are watching the situation very closely.”
Indonesia on Tuesday said it would increase public spending and provide incentives to the tourism industry to support domestic consumption and shield the economy from the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.
The coronavirus may knock 0.1 to 0.3 percentage point off Indonesia’s GDP growth, assuming a 1 to 2 percentage point reduction in China’s economic expansion, according to government estimates.
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