A woman wears a face mask at a public area in Banda Aceh on February 6, 2020. Photo: AFP/Chaideer Mahyuddin

A prominent Jakarta businessmen asked a rhetorical question over dinner one recent evening that increasingly preoccupies the minds of skeptical Indonesians as the coronavirus spreads across the region: “Do you really believe there are no cases here?”

The biggest country in Southeast Asia, a sprawling archipelago of 264 million people, remains remarkably free of the virus, causing many on social media to speculate on whether it’s simply blind good luck or, more ominously, the result of a government cover-up.

Health officials say 49 patients suspected of suffering from the virus across Java and Bali have all tested negative. So, too, have the 243 citizens airlifted from the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the epidemic, to a quarantine station on the remote South China Sea island of Natuna Besar.

Indonesian officials insist they have followed all of the World Health Organization (WHO) protocols, but still many Indonesians remain cynical. Health Minister Terawan Purwanto, meanwhile, has said little to boost public confidence.

“Let’s not be anxious,” he said light-heartedly. “Just enjoy, and consume enough food.”

Purwanto, 55, is a serving three-star general and military doctor who joined the presidential medical team in 2009 and later became head of Jakarta’s Gatot Soebroto Army Hospital, where presidents usually go for treatment.

An airline passenger (R) wearing a face mask at the Sultan Mahmud Badaruddin II International airport in Palembang, Indonesia, January 26, 2020. Photo: AFP/Abdul Qodir

Laos and Myanmar, underdeveloped with rudimentary health care and suspect tracking systems, are the only other Southeast Asian countries that have not yet reported any confirmed cases, despite the large movement of Chinese visitors across their long and porous northern borders.

Thousands of Chinese workers are engaged in construction projects across landlocked Laos, including the US$6 billion, 414-kilometer railway connecting China with the border town of Botan to Vientiane, the Laotian capital, which is due to be completed next year.

Myanmar doesn’t have those same high numbers of Chinese, but there are thousands of Myanmar citizens working in neighboring southern Yunnan province and cross-border smuggling and other human contact across the mountains is virtually unstoppable.

Yunnan, whose capital of Kunming is 1,560 kilometers southwest of Wuhan, has 140 confirmed coronavirus cases, putting it 19th on the list of China’s provinces and cities, according to WHO figures released on February 9.

Myanmar, which has only imposed travel restrictions along parts of the Chinese border, reportedly doesn’t have the facilities to diagnose the coronavirus; its national health laboratory has sent swabs of several suspected cases to neighboring Thailand for testing.

Since the start of the outbreak, as of February 9, 117 of the 307 confirmed coronavirus cases outside China have been recorded in Singapore (40), Thailand (32), Australia (15), Malaysia (17), Vietnam (14), the Philippines (3) and Cambodia (1). The total worldwide now stands at 37,558, including 2,676 new cases reported in the last 24 hours.

All of Australia’s patients had a history of travel to China or were Chinese tourists, as did 22 of Thailand’s cases and 21 of Singapore’s; Indonesia is 15th on the list of global countries Chinese tourists visited in 2018, led by neighboring Myanmar (12.3 million),Thailand (10.5 million) and Vietnam (7.5 million).

Two men wearing protective face masks chat on a footbridge in Bangkok on February 3, 2020. Photo AFP/Mladen Antonov

Researchers at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health have suggested that Indonesia’s apparent good fortune may instead show the potential for many undetected cases, given the time lapse before travel restrictions were imposed.

Based on estimates of air traffic volume from Wuhan to international destinations and a generalized linear regression model taking in 26 global locations, the scientists said they believed Indonesia should have up to 10 confirmed cases.

“Undetected cases in any country will potentially seed epidemics in those countries and could then spread to other countries,” warned Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics.

Lipsitch, the co-author of the new study, expects sustained transmission of the virus outside China. “I would be really shocked if in two or three weeks there wasn’t an ongoing transmission with hundreds of cases in several countries on several continents,” he said.

But he and other experts have cast serious doubts on a New England Journal of Medicine report claiming that the coronavirus can be spread by people who do not show any symptoms, which may be some relief for Indonesia and other purportedly disease-free countries.

Other scientists suggest the virus does not survive as well in hot and humid climates and may well follow a seasonal pattern noted with the 2002-3 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed 744 people – now less than the 812 who have died in the latest epidemic.

Indonesia suspended flights to and from Wuhan on January 24, the day of the city’s lockdown, and finally imposed a total ban on travel to and from mainland China on February 5, as medical teams moved to enforce health screenings at scores of entry points across the vast archipelago.

Officials in protective gear disinfecting Indonesian students as they disembark upon the arrival at Hang Nadim international airport in Batam following their evacuation from the Chinese city of Wuhan. Photo: Indonesian Embassy / AFP

President Joko Widodo has dismissed criticism of the ban by Chinese ambassador Xiao Qian, reminding him that Indonesia’s national interest always takes precedence over tourism. His spokesman has said it will only be lifted when the WHO declares an end to the global health emergency.

The WHO only declared the virus an emergency of international concern on January 30 — and even then it urged countries not to restrict travel or trade to China. That has led to allegations that it was bowing to the will of Beijing because of the serious economic implications of travel bans.

China is one of Indonesia’s most important trading partners, but imports have always heavily outweighed exports; the economic superpower enjoyed a trade bilateral surplus last year of $12.4 billion, mostly on the back of exports of machinery and goods.

Although a significant number of its 3,000 Chinese staff remain stranded in China after traveling home for the annual Lunar New Year holiday, Indonesian officials say production at the long established Morawali nickel smelting and stainless steel complex in Central Sulawesi continues as usual.

It appears certain, however, that with half of its 12,000-strong work force also stuck in China, the opening of the Chinese-funded Indonesia Weda Bay Industrial Park on the neighboring Moluccan island of Halmahera will be delayed, despite the nickel-processing project being close to completion.

An Indonesian health official checking the body temperature of a worker at PT Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park at Morowali in Central Sulawesi. Photo: AFP/Stringer

Indonesia’s Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, meanwhile, has limited the import of live fish from China and has said it will be tightening monitoring of frozen fish as well in the coming days.

Wuhan is a major logistics hub for China’s seafood trade in the center of the country, with some reports suggesting the coronavirus originated at the city’s Huanan wholesale market where exotic wildlife is also popular.

The SARS outbreak in 2002-3, which Indonesia declared a national emergency, was linked to Chinese consumption of civet meat. Indonesian authorities reported only two probable cases in an epidemic that killed 774 people in more than two dozen countries.

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