Indonesia Tries an Herbal Remedy for Covid-19

Traditional medicine, some of which contains male potency aids, has undergone no clinical trials

Indonesia has given official approval for nationwide sale of an herbal remedy for the Covid-19 coronavirus that has been criticized by medical authorities as having few medicinal properties beyond mild relief for the respiratory system such as turmeric, mint leaves, and ginger.

The mixture, called Herbavid-19, has been okayed by the House of Representatives’ Covid-19 task force without any approval or testing by medical authorities. It has been registered and obtained a distribution permit from the National Agency of Drug and Food Control, leading medical authorities to express concern that it could lead to a sense of false security instead of practicing physical distancing, wearing masks, and seeking modern medical help.

High-intensity interventions in other countries include massive coronavirus testing with a large number of participants, and implementing mandatory and binding rules regarding maintaining physical and social distance.

Attempts to control the virus, which has affected at least 11,587 people in Indonesia and killed at least 864, were initially set back by the health minister, who said Allah would protect Indonesia’s 225 million Muslims. The government delayed testing and tracking sufferers until they started turning up in Singapore in March. So far the virus has affected 3.6 million people worldwide and killed 256,000 since it was first discovered in Wuhan, China, late last year.

No clinical trials have been initiated to assess the medical efficacy of Herbavid-19. Among other things, it a form of jamu, a traditional medicine made from natural materials such as roots, bark, flowers, seeds, leaves, and fruits. Other materials such as honey, royal jelly, milk, and village chicken eggs are also often used to make up jamu, according to a description on the Internet.  Some forms are used as a male potency aid.

The Jakarta-based magazine Tempo quoted Inggrid Tania, the general chair of the Association of Indonesian Traditional Medicine and Herbal Medicine Developers, as saying the Covid-19 task force had ordered doctors to give Herbavid-19 herbs to patients although some doctors, he said, refused the request by the House of Representatives to do so, apparently out of a belief it would do no good and could supplant more science-based remedies.

Andre Rosiade, a Gerindra Party politician, said Herbavid-19 could cure Covid-19, adding that: "The appearance of Herbavid-19. Alhamdulillah (with the will of Allah), many people recovered from Covid 19 after consuming Herbavid 19.

Indonesia has stumbled from one misstep to another in its attempts to control the virus. Testing is almost non-existent, with only 427 tests per million people, so there is no real way to tell how widespread the pandemic is. The country’s medical system is rudimentary at best, with only one hospital bed for every 1,000 people, the lowest in Southeast Asia according to the World Health Organization. It only has four doctors for every 10,000 beds.

About 400 new coronavirus cases have been registered each night although it’s unknown how many there really are. Some estimates run into the tens of thousands. A Reuters investigation discovered that although the number of cases remains relatively small, funerals in Jakarta have risen substantially since the virus was first detected.

Anies Baswedan, the Jakarta governor, who is becoming a rising political rival to President Joko Widodo (above left), told a press conference in early April that 283 people had been buried between March 6 to 29 using the usual procedure for Covid-19 patients even though the government’s official death toll, announced on March 31, was only 83.

 Making matters worse, Jokowi, as the president is known, waffled on the question of allowing the Jakarta conurbation’s 30 million-odd residents to make the annual journey to their rural province homes for mudik, the traditional Eid-el-Fitr holiday that ends Ramadan. As a result, an estimated 2.1 million people left the capital before police started to put up roadblocks on April 23.

No private vehicles, buses, trains, passenger ships, and airplanes can leave or enter Jabodetabek, as the five-city conurbation is known. or other PSBB areas except ambulances, trucks carrying logistics, and vehicles related to essential services. People can still travel inside the urban area. The suspension of all domestic and international flights — commercial and charter— is effective from April 24 to June 1 except for presidents and state officials, foreign guests and representatives of countries or international organizations, and cargo or passengers related to Covid-19. 

The University of Indonesia's Faculty of Public Health (FKM UI), estimated that if mudik were to go ahead as usual, it could increase coronavirus infections on the island of Java, Indonesia’s most populous, to 1 million by May 23 – Eid al-Fitr – if 20 percent or 6.5 million residents return to their hometowns for seven days. However, that figure appears to be an overestimate. There have questions whether the government will allow those who go to their villages to come back to the capital.

"Cumulatively, the number of cases will increase to one million in May to June on Java – outside Jabodetabek- if travelers return to their villages and become carriers," said Pandu Riono, an FKM UI team member. "If people from Jabodetabek do homecoming, then (the virus) will spread in all areas including villages, where health services are very limited," said Pandu, an epidemiology expert.

The FKM UI team also predicts that if the government implements a medium scale intervention, the number of patients infected with Covid-19 in Indonesia is predicted to reach 1.3 million people with more than 47,000 deaths, whereas a high-intensity intervention would result in only 600,000 with 12,000-odd deaths. In fact, the number of those who will become affected is anybody’s guess.

This story was edited on may 6