Coronavirus

Indonesia Has Reported a Shockingly Low Number of Coronavirus Cases

Apart from the lack of testing kits, the government admitted that it initially withheld information​ about the virus to avoid nationwide panic.
March 18, 2020, 6:41am
indonesia coronavirus situation
Healthcare workers in Bali treat a suspected coronavirus patient on February 12. Photo via SONNY TUMBELAKA/AFP.

When the coronavirus infected individuals in nearly every Southeast Asian nation in early January, experts looked to Indonesia and wondered why the world’s fourth-most populous country had not reported a single case.

That was, until March 2, when President Joko Widodo announced the first two infected Indonesians: a mother and daughter who came in contact with an infected Japanese national. As of March 18, the number of infected individuals has risen to 172, with five deaths and eight recoveries.

Ruling out the possibility of a lockdown, Widodo’s administration has instead urged citizens to practice social distancing, closed a number schools and government offices, imposed travel restrictions, and limited transportation.

Human rights groups and health experts have criticised Indonesia’s lack of transparency in handling the virus. Widodo admitted on the weekend of March 14 that his administration had intentionally withheld information about the virus, including the travel history of the infected individuals, to avoid nationwide panic.

“Indeed, we did not deliver certain information to the public because we did not want to stir panic. We have worked hard to overcome this, since the novel coronavirus outbreak can happen regardless of the country border,” Widodo said on March 13.

“We will inform the public eventually. However, we have to think of the possibility that the public will react to it by panicking or worrying, as well as the effect on the recovered patients. Every country has different policies.”

Widodo has since assured that the public will be notified when a new infection cluster appears.

Who has been tested?

Out of a population of 264 million, Indonesia has tested only 1,138 individuals as of March 17. The 243 Indonesian nationals who returned from Wuhan, where the virus originated, were immediately quarantined on the Natuna Islands on February 2, and released after two weeks. None of them were tested for the coronavirus.

After Indonesia’s minister of transportation tested positive for the virus on March 14, Widodo ordered all ministers to be tested. He and Vice President Ma’ruf Amin have tested negative.

How is Indonesia handling the outbreak?

Indonesia’s capacity to test for and mitigate the virus became a subject of international scrutiny as the virus began to spread throughout Southeast Asia, seemingly missing the region’s most populous nation.

The Ministry of Health dismissed a Harvard study that suggested that Indonesia should have already had confirmed cases of the virus in mid-February, claiming the study was merely a prediction.

However, it was revealed on January 21 that Indonesia lacked sufficient testing kits. Until receiving rapid testing kits in the first week of February, Indonesia was relying on test kits that were only able to detect the common cold and the MERS and SARS viruses.

Experts still warn that the number of cases in Indonesia is likely much higher due to underreporting and lack of detection.

Still, Widodo’s administration has ruled out the possibility of a lockdown.

"First, I need to stress that the lockdown policy at both the national and regional levels is the policy of the central government. The local government cannot make this decision," the president said.

The government has reportedly designated 132 health facilities nationwide to treat infected individuals.

How has the virus affected everyday life?

Widodo’s administration has urged Indonesians to practice social distancing by working, studying, and praying from home.

As of March 18, 17 universities have either temporarily closed or switched to online learning. Most government work is done remotely. On March 14, Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan ordered all schools to close, postponing all exams and school-related activities, with many other provinces following suit. On March 16, the Ministry of State Owned Enterprises ordered all employees over 50 to work from home.

While government offices have adopted a work from home scheme, most factories and private companies claimed that they can't afford to do the same for their employees. Because of this, many continue to work in their offices and public places remain crowded.

How is travel affected?

On March 17, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs imposed restrictions on people who have traveled to Iran, Italy, Vatican City, France, Germany, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom in the past 14 days. Before this, the government had restricted all flights from mainland China.

Who is most vulnerable?

Like in other countries, some of the most vulnerable to the outbreak are those living in lower-income communities.

"Forty-five percent of residential areas in Jakarta are slums or are densely populated. The poor's ability to prevent [contamination] is minimal, while they cannot afford to see a doctor or go to hospital for a check-up," Trisakti University urban planning expert Yayat Supriatna told the Straits Times.

Most Indonesians in lower socio-economic classes live in poorly-ventilated housing that can become hotspots for disease.They also usually can’t afford hospital procedures, so many are likely not getting tested for the coronavirus. Right now, most confirmed cases come from the middle and upper class. National data places the number of Jakarta’s poor at 365,550, which only includes those who spend less than $1.40 per day. The actual number of people living in such conditions is likely much higher.