Wuhan virus: Experts warn against complacency in Indonesia

A health officer checks the screen of a thermal scanner for passengers at Lombok International airport in Praya, Indonesia, on Jan 26, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Calls are mounting for Indonesia to escalate preparedness against the Wuhan coronavirus, even though the country has no confirmed cases as of Sunday (Jan 26), amid a far-flung spread of the pneumonia-like ailment that has sickened nearly 2,000 people on four continents.

Indonesian authorities are deemed as maintaining business as usual while other countries have implemented extreme measures to contain the virus. In China, at least 10 cities have been sealed off, including Wuhan, ground zero of the virus.

An Indonesian who was studying in Wuhan and recently returned to Jakarta, said airport authorities did not take extra measures to examine passengers arriving from the city where the deadly virus first emerged.

The student, who requested anonymity, handed over a health alert card (HAC) that she had filled out with her personal information, travel history and health complaints but the card was not collected by officers at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Tangerang, Banten.

"In China, we were asked about our school, how long we had been in Wuhan and how long it had been since we left Wuhan. The officers observed us closely until they were sure they could let us go," the student told The Jakarta Post on Saturday.

The airport's health office head, Anas Ma'ruf, said there was a possibility that officers on the ground could not collect all HACs because of the overwhelming number of passengers.

However, he said the office had collected passenger manifest data from the airlines and that all passengers had been given a HAC, which they could bring to health facilities if they noticed any symptoms within two weeks of arrival.

"If a passenger has a fever and breathing difficulties, we will thoroughly examine them. However, many of them enter the country in healthy condition; that's why we give them a HAC as a way to communicate with health facilities in the regions," he told the Post on Sunday.

He said thermal screening and observation had been carried out, adding that the office planned to deploy more officers to intensify monitoring, including individual screening using thermo guns.

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A number of individuals across the country, including two tourists from China, were admitted to hospital in the last few days for showing flu-like symptoms. However, the Health Ministry immediately announced that the patients had not been infected by the new virus.

This occurred even though Indonesia is among the most popular final destination countries for people travelling from Wuhan.

According to data from m1nd-set's Business 1ntelligence Service (B1S), Indonesia accounted for 7 per cent of the 1.4 million outbound flights from Wuhan between December 2018 and November 2019 - the six highest after Thailand (33 per cent), Japan (12), Malaysia (10), Singapore (9) and Hong Kong (8).

Amid the global outbreak, the government has remained calm, with Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto dismissing concerns over the virus' transmission within the country. He even called such information "a hoax".

"There are no people suspected of being infected, " Terawan said on Sunday as quoted by Antara, despite reports of suspected cases in some regions. The government appears to have applied a stricter definition of people suspected of having been infected with the coronavirus.

Bayu Krisnamurthi, who headed the National Committee for Avian Flu Control and Pandemic Preparedness between 2006 and 2010, said it was understandable that managing an overwhelming number of arriving passengers at airports could be difficult.

"HACs will only be effective if passengers are disciplined. How do we know if they will fill in the right information and if they will report right away once they notice any symptoms?" Bayu argued.

He added that authorities and relevant institutions should also have the right attitude in facing the outbreak.

"Denying this will not help. We don't have to panic and overreact but we can't be too complacent either. Be alert and strengthen our readiness."

Amin Soebandrio, the director of the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology, said the government had prepared the necessary infrastructure for the outbreak.

"However, the government needs to reactivate the systems again because [virus outbreaks] have not happened to us in years, " said Amin, who also led the panel of experts at the National Commission on Avian Flu.

"Not all people affected by the virus will get sick. Most will heal on their own. But these people still have the potential to become a source of transmission when coming into contact with others who happen to have a weak immune system."

The Foreign Ministry is looking into relocating Indonesian citizens and diplomats amid an escalation of the outbreak.

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