The Indonesian government has downplayed fears the new coronavirus, or COVID-19, is spreading undetected throughout the country, while dismissing mounting concern it’s not equipped to deal with an outbreak.
Despite neighbouring countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Australia all recording multiple cases, there has not been one single case of infection among the 272 million-strong population of Indonesia.
Worldwide, the death toll from the coronavirus is nudging 1500; there are more than 64,000 cases confirmed; and the virus has managed to spread across Asia, parts of Europe and the US.
Given the number of cases in neighbouring countries, coupled with the fact more than 2 million Chinese tourists visit the country annually, it is likely the virus has spread, said Professor Ian Mackay, a virologist at the University of Queensland.
“It seems unlikely they have zero cases,” Professor Mackay told The New Daily.
“It seems unlikely there are no cases because of the large amount of travel form China to the country on a regular basis.”
Last week, a study from Harvard University analysed the number of reported cases against air travel volume from affected areas. It suggested it was statistically unlikely there had been zero cases in the country.
“We recommend that outbreak surveillance and control capacity should be rapidly strengthened in those locations (Indonesia, Cambodia and also Thailand),” the report said.
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The World Health Organisation has also expressed concern the country has not done enough to prepare for a potential outbreak, writing that the government needed to improve surveillance, case detection and preparation at designated health facilities.
While the country’s own WHO representative admitted it still had work to do on mitigating a potential outbreak, the Indonesian government is making it easier for tourists to visit the country.
Fearing a 30 per cent drop in tourists, it has cut costs for airlines travelling to the country in a bid to bring in extra visitors and counter-act the economic fallout of the coronavirus.
The measures include cutting landing charges and airport fees for carriers and providing incentives for tourism businesses in popular tourist locations such as Bali, Manado and the Riau Islands.
“The government will work together with airport operators, airlines and hotels to come up with the incentives,” Transport Minister Budi Karya Sumadi said.
“We want to boost the tourism industry and encourage people to take holidays.”
One Chinese national who had travelled from Wuhan to Bali is currently being tested for the novel coronavirus, but the Indonesian government has downplayed concerns.
A spokesperson for the Indonesian Health Ministry said despite Chinese authorities advising passengers on the same flight quarantine themselves, the Indonesian government would not do the same.
“There’s no way we will tell people, ‘Hey, you are under observation because you might get infected by someone that I suspect [of being infected by the virus]’,” he told reporters.
“It’s just a suspicion, and people would get panicked.
“One thing is for sure: on January 22 all [Lion Air] passengers were examined and received a health alert card [upon entering Indonesia].
“Assuming that he was in Indonesia on January 27, that was a time when we did not have any positive cases of the novel coronavirus. We tested specimens from two Indonesian citizens and 12 foreigners, and all of them tested negative.”
Last week, the WHO’s Indonesia representative Dr Navaratnasamy Paranietharan said the country was taking ‘concrete measures’ to prepare but, “There is still more work to do in the areas of surveillance and active case detection, and the preparation of designated health facilities fully with adequate infection prevention and control measures to be able to cope with a heavy patient load of any suspected or confirmed cases, in the event of an outbreak scenario”.