JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - As more countries record new cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus, Indonesia's claim of being virus-free continues to raise doubts as questions persist over the effectiveness of monitoring and testing efforts of local health authorities.
The country only allows one lab, run by the Health Ministry's Health Research and Development Agency (Balitbangkes), to test swab samples of suspected Covid-19 patients.
As of Saturday (Feb 29), it had tested 143 samples taken from people who had shown symptoms or had travelled to infected countries. All were reportedly negative.
However, the government did not test the 237 citizens and one American spouse of an Indonesian national who were evacuated from Wuhan and other cities in China after a 14-day quarantine in Natuna, Riau Islands.
The government claimed they had already been declared virus-free when leaving China, so it was unnecessary for them to be tested again.
Instead of being more vigorous and deploying more resources in conducting health monitoring and tests, the government later announced it would allocate Rp 72 billion (S$7.2 million) for promotional purposes - partly for so-called social media influencers - to attract foreign tourists to Indonesia and help revive the country's tourism, which has been battered by the outbreak.
But this kind of blind optimism wins nobody's trust, especially from the international community.
Several foreign nationals who transited in Indonesia have tested positive for Covid-19. They might have contracted the virus in Indonesia and it does not rule out the possibility that the country has become a vector of the disease.
Saudi Arabia has banned Indonesian pilgrims from going on umrah (minor haj), even though Indonesia has not declared any confirmed cases of infection.
A document circulating among foreign diplomats obtained by the Sydney Morning Herald pointed out that the inadequate transportation of specimens was among the concerns that led them to doubt Indonesia's virus-free status.
Countries have escalated measures to mitigate the virus. The New York Times reported that measures would be expanded throughout the United States, which has tested 500 patients, following a flaw found in the tests that were only performed by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
One person has reportedly died of the virus in the US.
Malaysia has tested 1,092 cases as of Feb 24, while South Korea has tested over 60,000 people as of Thursday (Feb 27).
There is no reason for Indonesia to do less or overstate its coronavirus status. It would be more useful for all resources, including funding, to be allocated to help improve public health efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Thorough testing and observation should be conducted on returning crew members of the World Dream and Diamond Princess cruise ships, who will be quarantined in Sebaru Island, North Jakarta, as well as travellers coming in from countries that have reported positive cases as the virus has become even more widespread.
It's better to be safe than sorry.
The Jakarta Post is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media organisations.