Coronavirus: Absence of confirmed cases in Indonesia raises eyebrows

Indonesians who were flown back from Wuhan playing a ball game while under quarantine at an air force base in Natuna Islands, Riau, last Tuesday. As of Friday, Indonesia's Health Ministry has put the number of suspect cases at 50, of which 49 have te
Indonesians who were flown back from Wuhan playing a ball game while under quarantine at an air force base in Natuna Islands, Riau, last Tuesday. As of Friday, Indonesia's Health Ministry has put the number of suspect cases at 50, of which 49 have tested negative and the remaining one is pending results.PHOTO: REUTERS

The coronavirus outbreak in China has spread far and wide, reaching countries and cities in the region such as Japan, Thailand and Malaysia. The Sunday Times foreign correspondents look at how the governments and people in these areas have reacted to the crisis.

As the deadly coronavirus which originated in Wuhan spreads outside of China to infect at least 320 people in more than 27 countries, Indonesia has yet to confirm a single suspect case, raising questions over its preparedness to deal with the disease.

Indonesian healthcare practitioners told The Sunday Times they do not rule out the possibility the virus may have already entered the vast archipelago and is lurking among the 260-million population, but remains undetected and unreported.

"Infected people who are asymptomatic and don't get sick do not see a doctor. Those who develop flu but are scared of being quarantined or receiving special treatment may also not see a doctor," said Professor Gusti Ngurah Mahardika, head of the Animal Biomedical and Molecular Biology Laboratory at the Udayana University in Bali.

As of Friday, Indonesia's Health Ministry has put the number of suspect cases at 50, of which 49 have tested negative and the remaining one is pending results.

"Indeed, until now, there has been no confirmed cases," Professor Menaldi Rasmin, chairman of the expert board at Indonesia Medical Association, told The Sunday Times. He said the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic in 2003 has raised awareness in the healthcare sector on how to deal with viral outbreaks.

He also gave assurance that Indonesia has the test kits and special operating procedures in place to ensure virus suspects with respiratory problems and who have travel history to China are immediately referred to hospitals to be isolated for further examination.

The focus now is having emergency plans to prepare for a sudden spike in cases, Prof Mahardika said.

"The isolation facilities in hospitals in the provinces can cater for, say, around 10 people, so it will be overwhelming if there is an explosion in cases," he added.

Besides thermal screenings of passengers at airports and ports which have been in place since January, the authorities last Sunday flew home more than 200 Indonesians from Wuhan, and placed them under a 14-day health quarantine in the remote Natuna Islands, in the Riau province.

 
 
 
 

Jakarta has also suspended visa-free and visa-on-arrival provisions for Chinese nationals and halted flights to and from China. The import of live animals will also be temporarily banned. The travel restrictions appear to have displeased China, Indonesia's biggest trading partner and second-largest tourist source after Malaysia.

Chinese Ambassador to Indonesia Xiao Qian last Tuesday was quoted by the Jakarta Post as saying that Indonesia's decision can potentially cause a negative effect on its bilateral trade in future. In response, President Joko Widodo said: "Whatever it may be, I reiterate that our national interest remains the top priority."

Indonesian political analyst Ray Rangkuti said China appears to be harder on South-east Asia's largest economy than other countries adopting similar measures as it is influential in the region.

"But our government cannot be seen as doing nothing as the public will surely condemn it. But we will need to take care of our relations with China too," he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 09, 2020, with the headline 'Absence of confirmed cases in Indonesia raises eyebrows'. Print Edition | Subscribe