An Unprepared Indonesia Announces Coronavirus Cases

A government with its head in the sand seeks to lure tourists at the same time

A seemingly oblivous Indonesian government has announced plans to drive up tourism dramatically on one hand by offering flight tickets to tourists at a 50 percent discount at the same time critics say it apparently is doing almost nothing to protect itself from the menace of the COVID-19 virus.

The government had continued to insist that there were no cases the country until today (March 20), when President Joko Widodo announced two persons have tested positive, the first confirmed cases – although the Singaporean government announced today as well that two individuals who had visited the island of Batam are now under quarantine in the island republic.  Most health officials believe the number of cases is far higher. Other reports have said there are up to nine cases.

The government, according to a statement from Transportation Minister Bui Karya Sumadi, “is offering 50 percent off flight tickets to persuade domestic and international tourists” to keep visiting the country's favorite tourist destinations. The ministry has targeted 10 cities across the country as tourism destinations. Many other countries are doing their best to limit international travel for fear of the virus, the most devastating outbreak in decades.

Health specialists and physicians, however, say the country is not only unprepared for an outbreak of the virus, they aren’t bothering to get prepared at the same time they are inviting tens of thousands of tourists. As the Sydney Morning Herald reported last week, the situation has so alarmed the US Embassy in Jakarta that it is asking its officers and officials of other legations to plead with the Indonesians to get moving. 

The US, according to the Australian newspaper, has issued talking points “designed to ensure foreign diplomats in closed door meetings with Indonesian health officials are delivering a consistent message about the need for Indonesia to do more to prepare for and protect itself from coronavirus. The messages being delivered by diplomats include a warning that ‘we believe it is critical for your government to be actively conducting case detection.’”

Other sources in Jakarta confirmed the lack of urgency on the part of the government although the public immediately started emptying shelves of toilet paper and other items. 

“They apparently rejected Centers for Disease Control training on the tests,” said an expatriate businessman. “The CDC tests were sent a week or 10 days ago. I asked my doctor where one gets tested. He said he had no idea. ‘This is an SOS clinic.’” 

The Indonesia Stock Market fell has fallen by 7.7 percent since last Friday, following world markets down over coronavirus fears. However, a source told Asia Sentinel, “Indonesia’s approach is basically to do nothing. No testing. No cases. Low mortality means it's just flu. No panic. If a few people die that's just flu. It's takdir [fate].” 

Indonesian Ministry of Health Spokesman Widyawati disputed that, saying in an interview that Indonesia has a test kit, called primer, needed to detect the coronavirus. "WHO representatives have checked directly (the device) and this is according to their protocol," Widyawati said, referring to The World Health Organization. However, he said, the testing tool is now in the Health Research and Development Agency in Jakarta — the only institution authorized to conduct testing in the sprawling country, with nearly 270 million people scattered across 5,042 km living on 17,000 islands.

Health workers, Widyawati said, are experienced in dealing with any kind of epidemics including the new coronavirus. "We often do training for health workers so when there are patients who have contracted any virus, we are ready," she said.

The Ministry of Health has prepared 100 hospitals that have been designated as referrals for patients suspected of being infected with the new virus. They had previously handled a bird flu outbreak in 2004, he said.

Nonetheless, US diplomats are said to have vented their alarm to top officials about the lack of urgency about what is rapidly evolving into a global pandemic, saying the need is critical to train health personnel to handle possible cases and to get the test kits to hospitals across the country and to get adequate protective equipment for health personnel, and to prepare isolation beds and other equipment. 

According to a Jakarta source, government officials aren’t as concerned as they should be because the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic did little damage the country, possibly because the virus was susceptible to the high average mean temperature in tropical countries. The Philippines also escaped widespread problems from SARS.

However, critics point out that Singapore, which is equally tropical, has recorded 103 cases including a 37-year-old woman who visited the Indonesian island of Batam from February 21 to February 23. Singapore has quarantined at least 2848 close contacts. Indonesia is believed to have tested about 140 people. 

Last week, according to the health department spokesman, two patients who had been suspected of contracting the virus died in hospitals in two different cities, Batam and Semarang. They showed symptoms similar to those of Coronavirus patients but after their fluid samples were tested in a laboratory in Jakarta, they were found to be negative.