The focal point of a tense maritime stand-off with China only weeks ago, the largest island in Indonesia’s northernmost Natuna archipelago is now a temporary home for 242 quarantined citizens evacuated from Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis.
Chartered commercial and air force aircraft carried the evacuees on the 4,000-kilometer flight to Natuna Besar only hours before the Indonesian government followed the evacuations of other countries across the globe in banning all travel to and from China.
Authorities were forced to dispatch a company of paramilitary Police Mobile Brigade officers to the 1,720 square kilometer island after some of the 52,000 residents, many of them fishermen, staged protests over its use as a quarantine facility.
Local officials said the government had not consulted them beforehand but Indonesia has yet to report a case of coronavirus and is clearly anxious to stop it spreading across one of the most densely populated regions in the world.
Indonesia’s travel ban, which prevents visitors who have stayed in China for 14 days or more from entering the country, went into force at midnight on Monday. Indonesian-owned Lion Air, one of the world’s largest budget carriers, suspended flights to China last Saturday.
Bali will be the hardest hit by the health emergency, with more than 15,000 Chinese holiday-makers cancelling their visits to the tourist island in anticipation of the current ban, which will initially last for a fortnight.
The Bali Tourism Agency last week held a mass prayer at a Hindu temple on the Kota tourist strip, asking that the island be spared from the coronavirus and for the outbreak to end soon.
About two million mainland Chinese visited Indonesia last year, many of them spending their vacations on Bali where they account for the second highest number of foreign visitors after Australia.
The Philippines on Sunday reported that a 44-year-old Chinese resident who had travelled from Wuhan became the first known fatality outside China, but at least 20 other countries and regions across the globe are all dealing with cases.
Anti-Chinese feelings are never far below the surface in Indonesia when misfortune strikes, but the social media is already full of racist conspiracy theories, with people being advised to throw away their Chinese-made handphones and not to eat or use Chinese food and other products.
The government has sealed off two major Chinese-funded nickel projects in Central Sulawesi and on the neighboring Maluku island of Halmahera until the staffers have undergone medical checks and are determined to be free of the virus.
More than 40,000 workers have been prevented from leaving the Shanghai Decent Investment Group’s 2,000-hectare Morowali Industrial Park on the west coast of Sulawesi, home to a major nickel smelting and stainless steel facility.
About half of the 3,000 Chinese guest workers at the site who had gone to China for Chinese New Year will not be able to return until the travel ban is lifted. It is not clear how that will affect production at the complex, where work only recently begun on a US$4 billion lithium battery plant.
Also affected by the shutdown is the construction of Halmahera’s Weda Bay nickel smelter, jointly owned by Tsingshan, the world’s largest stainless steel manufacturer, and French mining company Eramet. Government sources say half of the 12,000 Chinese workers at the site are also stranded in China, unable to get back from holiday leave.
The sources say an additional 200 holidaying Chinese supervisors are missing from the Chinese-funded $5.8 billion Jakarta-Bandung fast-rail project, which is already running about two years behind schedule because of problems acquiring land for the train track and related commercial operations.
In turning Natuna into a sanctuary, Indonesia is following the lead of Australia, which will use the refugee detention facility on Christmas Island, 2,700 kilometers west of the Northern Territory state capital of Darwin, to accommodate about 150 of its stranded citizens.
Delaying his departure for Jogjakarta late last week, President Joko Widodo summoned Cabinet members to a crisis meeting at Halim airbase, where military commander Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto suggested Natuna Besar as the best place to hold the evacuees in relative isolation.
Located 1,120 kilometers north of Jakarta, Indonesia has beefed up security on the island over the past two years as China pushes its claim to traditional fishing rights within Indonesia’s 200-nautical-mile Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ).
That has included extending the island’s runway to take heavier aircraft, including the Boeing 737 jetliner, one of which was used on the emergency airlift from Wuhan on February 2 as evacuations of foreigners from the closed-off city picked up pace.
But the evacuees were initially flown direct to Batam, south of Singapore, where they were greeted by health workers in hazmat suits who sprayed them in a cloud of disinfectant as they emerged from the aircraft.
They then boarded air force C-130 cargo planes which provided the airbridge for the hour-long flight to Natuna Besar; officials said the three C-130s were employed because they are easier to sanitize than the passenger jets.
The Indonesian evacuees will spend two weeks on Natuna Besar in temporary housing normally used by visiting fishermen from Java and other parts of Indonesia who are being deployed as a first line of defense against Chinese intrusions.
Apart from the longer runway and new port facilities, the island also has a fully-equipped field hospital for the battalion of Indonesian troops and other servicemen who have been stationed there since 2018.
Indonesia dispatched six warships and F-16 fighter jets to the southern reaches of the South China Sea early last month after three armed Chinese Coast Guard patrol craft and scores of fishing boats intruded up to 100 kilometers into the EEZ.
They finally withdrew within hours of Widodo making a highly publicized flying visit to the islands, as he did after a previous standoff in 2016 when Chinese patrol craft actually entered Indonesia’s territorial waters.