US to Americans in Indonesia: ‘Get Out Now!’

Concern deepens over government’s ability to handle coronavirus

By: Ainur Rohmah

On April 14, Heather Variava, the Charge d’Affairs at the US Embassy in Jakarta, delivered an astonishing message telling all Americans to get out of Indonesia and offering to put them in a program to evacuate them back to the United States:

“I want to strongly encourage you to return home now,” Variava (above) broadcast on Instagram. “The longer you wait, the less likely your chances are of getting home. Please think about your family and friends. If they’re worried and concerned, you should return home now. Please also think about the healthcare available here. As the number of cases grows, there may be a strain on medical facilities.”

Should US citizens fall ill, she said, “medical care may not be readily available. Remaining in Indonesia not only exposes yourself to risk, but could also burden the strained healthcare system here. In the meantime, we need you and other Americans currently in Indonesia to register for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program or STEP. The Embassy team is working around the clock to ensure the welfare of Americans in Indonesia. If you care about yourself, your friends and family and Indonesia, then please return home now.”

Variava’s message was regarded by some critics in Jakarta as overly dramatic and keyed to a wider push by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to abandon American obligations overseas, as Asia Sentinel reported on April 13. Nonetheless, it is an indication of the growing apprehension in Jakarta that with a shambolic health care system and with a government that seems to be running in circles, unsure what to do, Covid-19 could explode into a disaster. Diplomatic missions from the UK, Australia and the European Union have all warned their citizens about the virus although none have been as dramatic as the US’s.

Two weeks after the government recommended staying home, practicing social distancing and taking socially restrictive measures, people are starting their daily activities as usual under a modified lockdown, people are still on the streets and workers go to their offices as usual.  

The situation hasn’t been helped by a statement by Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, the Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment and one of the country’s most powerful officials, that the coronavirus can’t survive in Indonesia’s tropical heat, a claim denied by The World Health Organization (WHO).

There is reason to be uneasy about the state of Indonesia’s readiness to handle the Covid-19 virus. It is among countries with the lowest number of coronavirus tests – only 357 tests per one million people, according to Worldometer, which carries running tallies for 21 countries and territories. According to the Ministry of Health data, Indonesia had tested 33,678 specimens as of April 14, a minuscule figure compared to its population of around 270 million.

After weeks of denial, the government has banned mass gatherings and imposed so-called "large-scale social restrictions" to reduce the spread of the virus. President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, said he had ordered the National Police to enforce the restrictions, but didn’t explain what measures they could take. He said there is a possibility of implementing a civil emergency if things get very bad, although not now, when the situation is under control. Regional governments can now close schools, offices, businesses and non-essential services and limit social and religious activities.

Nuning Nuriani, Head of Mathematics Modeling and Simulation Center of the Bandung Technology Institute (ITB), predicted that the Covid-19 outbreak in Indonesia wouldn’t reach peak spread until late April or early May, but that was on the condition that 90 percent of the population independently isolate themselves.

"If [large-scale social restrictions] begin on April 12 and only 10 percent of people move, and with Polymerase Chain Reaction kits from Switzerland and isolation carried out well, then we have better hope,” she said. “So the peak of active cases can go down faster, the number of deaths is also lower."

With current test capacity and lax restriction, with only 30-60 percent of the population isolating while the rest were moving freely, Nuning predicted the peak of the outbreak wouldn’t be reached before early July – nearly three months from now, with an outbreak duration of 10 months.

The State-Owned Enterprises ministry recently announced it would distribute dozens of swab test kits or Polymerase Chain Reaction units, giving hope that several provinces will be able to speed up data collection to allow immediate treatment. The PCR machine is claimed to be able to test 9,000 to 10,000 specimens every day. With these new tools, the government is targeting 300,000 tests a month. The PCR, imported from the Roche pharmaceutical company in Switzerland, is said to have a more accurate level of precision to detect the virus than a rapid test.

The government previously imported a million rapid tests from China although as many as 40 percent have been found to be faulty in other countries and medical personnel in Spain, Turkey and the Netherlands have refused to use them.

"We must improve sample testing, accompanied by aggressive tracking and strict isolation," said President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, who declared the coronavirus outbreak a national disaster earlier this week. "I hope we can test more than 10,000 (specimens) per day,"

Government Spokesperson for COVID-19 Ahmad Yurianto said physical distancing, which health authorities consider to be a crucial element in stopping the coronavirus, in Indonesia is constrained by the lack of public discipline. Calls to stay at home, to not gather in crowds and be careful to wash hands and not touch faces have been ignored, Yurianto said, adding that many are probably positive but without symptoms or with minimal symptoms they remain active in crowds.

Jakarta finally implemented large-scale social restrictions on PSBB starting April 10 until April 23, but the restrictions can be extended. Some other areas will follow. Schools, universities, businesses, and offices should be closed except for essential sectors such as healthcare and those selling basic necessities. People are barred from staging gatherings involving more than five people. Public spaces will be closed and all political, entertainment, cultural events, sports and seminars will be barred. 

Patrols and sanctions are to be imposed against violators. Under the law on health quarantine, people who violate the order could face up to a year in jail and/or a fine of up to Rp100 million (US$6,401).

Jakarta is the area with the most cases of transmission compared to others, with more than 2,300 as of April 14 and 241 deaths. But there are indications that many cases and deaths are going undetected. Data from Jakarta's Department of Parks and Cemeteries show that at least 5,330 burial permits were issued in March, a huge increase from 2,539 in February. Some 302 burials took place in Jakarta in the first three days of April. The department claimed that only 621 of the burials were related to Covid-19. The dead, however, were buried using procedures applied to sufferers from the virus such as burial in a coffin, the body wrapped in plastic and buried less than four hours after death, and the burial carried out by personal protective equipment (PPE) -clad workers.

Of the 621 dead, only 126 were known to be positive, while the rest were suspected of dying from the coronavirus. They were usually isolated in hospitals or their own homes but died before their swab test results came out.

Threat Follows

Indonesia is likely to face another challenge where people will perform mudik, the traditional visit home for Muslims in the lead-up to the Idul Fitri (Eid) celebration on May 23 ending Ramadan, which is feared could trigger outbreaks in all corners of the country.

Aware of the threat, President Jokowi has barred civil servants, police, military officers and state-owned companies' employees from performing mudik, arguing that their incomes are not impacted by the restrictions they thus don't need to head home like informal and laid-off workers.

However, the Indonesian Transportation Society (MTI) predicts 1.3 million people will carry out mudik to various areas on Java, the most populous island. The government has only asked that they not travel but hasn’t prohibited the practice. Data from the Ministry of Transportation show that at least 900,000 from Greater Jakarta, the epicenter of coronavirus, have left the city and traveled back to their hometowns.

"If this problem related to mudik cannot be handled by the government and all of us, then many areas will become new targets for the spread of a pandemic," said Chairman of the Indonesian Transportation Society (MTI), Agus Taufik Mulyono.