Indonesia Tries to Corral Coronavirus

Tardy and unprepared, government faces growing questions

By: Ainur Rohmah

Faced with a stock market that has lost 20.4 percent of its value since the first of the year and a currency that has fallen by 5.3 percent over the past month, partly from apparent lack of concern over the onset of the Covid-19 coronavirus, Indonesia is scrambling to cope with a growing crisis that is calling into question the competence of the government and raising fears of lasting economic damage.

President Joko Widodo announced the first case on March 2 after officials for weeks had said there were none. Vice-president Ma'ruf Amin and Minister of Health Terawan Agus Putranto, for example, said in February that the prayers of the Indonesian people had prevented the onset of the virus as it ravaged other countries. 

The absence of the virus made the public suspicious that the government was either unable to detect cases or was covering them up. Officials had hoped the virus would be unable to survive tropical heat, which apparently kept the SARS virus at bay in 2003. It is still undetermined if higher temperatures can limit the spread of the virus although it has continued to spread in several tropical countries.

Corona-positive patients reached 34 in Indonesia on March 11, one of whom has died and two of whom have recovered. Some 736 people have been monitored because they showed symptoms similar to the disease and their specimens have been taken for examination in the laboratory. 

But the country is far behind the rest of Asia in testing, and the number could well climb sharply. Singapore, for instance, has recorded two cases who arrived in the city from the island of Batam, just across the Strait, after having possibly contracted the virus on Indonesian soil. 

Of the 34 cases, 20 were imported by patients who probably contracted the virus outside the country, including several Indonesian crewmen aboard the Island Princess, the cruise ship that was called a “petri dish” of infection before passengers were taken off in Yokohama, Japan. At least 700 were found to be infected.

The latest announcement revealed that at least seven imported cases had escaped thermal scanner inspections at airports. "They were detected through health alert cards. Because they had gone to countries with high Covid-19 infection rates, they received a card. So when they felt ill, they went to the hospital and showed their cards,” said government spokesman Achmad Yurianto. 

Although the number of imported cases has increased, Yurianto said the government will not add to the list of countries that are restricted from entering Indonesia. The government had previously restricted the entry of citizens from Japan, South Korea, Iran and Italy, as well as imposed a travel ban to and from China.

Tourism Sector Hit

In the three or four months since the onset of the pandemic globally, the tourism sector in several Indonesian cities and the island of Bali have been affected, with the Bali Immigration Office recording a 33 percent drop in arrivals in February after the government imposed a travel ban to and from China. Chinese tourist visits to Indonesia are the second largest after Malaysia.

Elly Hutabarat, general chairperson of the Indonesian Travel Agent Association (Astindo), said the association appreciated a government move to issue a stimulus policy with the aim of driving up domestic travel but said that wasn’t enough to solve the problem. The stimulus includes providing incentives through airplane ticket discounts of 30 percent to 40 percent for 10 domestic destinations from March to May 2020. 

"The impact of the coronavirus is very big for us. That step alone is not enough," he said.

Tourism entrepreneurs in Bali have now also implemented unpaid leave for their workers. Elly said he hoped the government would consider other subsidy options such as tax incentives and cutting electricity costs. Other countries are seeking to limit travel between cities because of the danger of spreading the virus.

Government Stimulus

Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati announced that the government would grant a six-month tax break for employees, manufacturers and importers as part of its second attempt at fiscal stimulus to prop up the economy. It has also announced it would inject more than US$700 million into the economy to seek to aid highly exposed regions to tourism. Other restrictions will be relaxed on imports.  

Bank Indonesia, the country’s central bank, recently downgraded its GDP projection from a range of 5.0 percent to 5.4 percent from its earlier projection of 5.1 and 5.5 percent after a lackluster fourth quarter as the global outlook dampened the export and investment outlook, although sharply falling oil prices should help the economy. The central bank also lowered its benchmark interest rate by 25 basis points to 4.75 percent.

As Asia Sentinel noted on March 2, health specialists and physicians have warned that the country was not only unprepared for an outbreak of the virus, they weren’t bothering to get prepared, leading foreign diplomats to plead with the government to import test kits and start widespread testing, among other measures. The president’s announcement of the virus spurred the public to immediately begin emptying shelves of toilet paper and other items. 

On Wednesday, Yurianto confirmed that the country’s first fatality had died at Sanglah Hospital on Bali. The 53-year-old British woman, Yurianto, was admitted to the hospital in severe condition caused by pre-existing illnesses including diabetes, hypertension and years-long obstructive lung disease, weakening her immune system and further exacerbating her condition. “So the coronavirus was not the main cause [of the patient’s death], but it had worsened her condition,” said Yurianto, is also Disease Control and Prevention director-general in the Health Ministry.

The woman wasn’t detected suffering from the virus when checked at the airport. She began treatment at the hospital on March 6 and her condition continued to deteriorate until she died. 

The case has raised further questions by many about Indonesia's capacity to handle the outbreak since Balinese health authorities confirmed that the national government in Jakarta --which controls Covid-19 testing – failed to alert them the woman had coronavirus until after she died. But Yurianto argued that his party had told the doctor who handled the woman and did not have to do the same to the local government.

He also acknowledged that the government is having trouble tracking the spread of the virus carried by another patient, a 33-year-old male identified as case 27. He said the transmission hadn’t originated from a previously identified corona-positive patient, leaving heath authorities seeking to determine where he’d contracted it. Specimen tests have been carried out on his whole family and relatives, but all are negative. 

"Now the government is continuing to search wherever case 27 traveled and with anyone he made close contact during the last 14 days," he said.