A woman wearing a face mask stands on a street in Jakarta on March 2, 2020. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

JAKARTA – Indonesia has finally recorded its first two cases of the coronavirus but for its vast Muslim population the epidemic has already had an impact where it hurts the most: depriving thousands of devotees from a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.

Saudi Arabia, which has not yet confirmed a case of the virus, last week called a  temporarily halt to the umrah (minor haj), a short notice ban that broke the hearts of pilgrims who had already arrived in Jakarta for special charter flights to the Middle East.

The stoppage came four days before President Joko Widodo announced that two coronavirus patients, both from the southern suburb of Depok, were being treated at the Sulianto Saroso infectious diseases hospital in North Jakarta.

Funded by Japanese grants and built in 1995, the institution has been an initial referral point for outbreaks of SARS, Asian influenza and diphtheria in recent years.

Although they said they respected the decision of the Saudi government to halt the umrah, Foreign Ministry officials failed in their efforts to make Indonesia an exception on the grounds that it had yet to be exposed to the virus.

Now that its status has changed, Indonesia is much less likely to be treated any differently from Muslim-majority Malaysia and both Thailand and the Philippines, which have significant Islamic minorities. 

Iran leads the Middle East region with 539 cases and 43 deaths, but Saudi nationals are among patients being treated in Kuwait (45) and Bahrain (40). Another 34 virus cases have spread among the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Lebanon and Egypt.

Iranian voters wear masks as they wait to cast their ballots during parliamentary elections at the Shah Abdul Azim shrine on the southern outskirts of Tehran on February 21, 2020. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP

Unlike the haj, timed this year between the evenings of July 28 and August 2 in the twelfth and last month of the Islamic calendar year, umrah can be performed at any time during the year, with devotees allowed to stray outside Mecca.

With the world’s largest Muslim population, Indonesia had about 946,900 umrah pilgrims last year, the second highest number after Pakistan (1.59 million) among the 7.5 million foreign pilgrims.

The country’s haj quota in 2019 was 231,000 out of a total of 2.3 million pilgrims worldwide, most of whom wait an average of 10 years to perform their religious duty if they are not part of Indonesia’s queue-jumping wealthy elite.

Whether it is the haj or umrah, many poor Indonesians living in rural areas face an onerous task scraping together the US$2,500 to cover the cost of a once-only trip abroad and the additional funds needed to reach an international airport.

Meanwhile, Indonesia won’t have to continue defending itself against skepticism about its purported lack of coronavirus cases, with Health Minister Terwan Putranto only last week being forced to deny once again that there was no official cover-up.

Indonesian Health Minister Terwan Putranto has been on the receiving end of Covid-19 cover-up allegations. Photo: Twitter

“We have nothing to deny and we are telling nothing but the truth,” he protested. “If the number (of suspected cases) turns out to be negative, then it is a blessing from God.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had pointed out how difficult it was to accept Jakarta’s reassurances given the challenge of adequately monitoring  a vast archipelago with multiple entry points.

American and other diplomats met with Indonesian health officials last week to air their concern over the country’s handling of the crisis and what they believed to be a lack of urgency in looking for and detecting suspected cases.

Authorities have tested less than 200 people so far, compared to thousands in countries such as Thailand, which the John Hopkins University ranks sixth in the world in epidemic preparedness and an “international leader in health security.”

Indonesia is 30th overall but is 37th in the category of early detection and reporting for epidemics of potential international concern, with only two Jakarta biosafety laboratories capable of working with potentially lethal microbes.

The diplomats also expressed worries about Indonesia’s readiness to handle large numbers of stricken patients, though the World Health Organization (WHO) said last month that Indonesia had a “functioning early warning system” and 100 hospitals to serve as referral centers.

Last week, 188 Indonesian crew members from the World Dream cruise liner were quarantined on an island in Jakarta Bay after being picked up in Hong Kong by a naval hospital ship. None have contracted the disease so far, according to official reports.

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

The government is also planning the repatriation of 78 Indonesian crewmen from the Diamond Princess cruise ship which has been quarantined for more than a fortnight off Japan. Nine of the Indonesians aboard caught the virus, but all seem to be recovering.

One patient with a suspected case of coronavirus who died in a hospital in the Central Java city of Semarang was later diagnosed to have had swine flu, which he caught on a recent visit to Madrid.

Despite Indonesia claiming that its screening is effective, at least two Chinese tourists who visited Bali in January and February later tested positive for the virus when they returned home to China.

Bali, which receives more than 1.2 million Chinese tourists a year, has been hit hard by the epidemic. It is now nearly as empty as it was after the 2002 terrorist bombings of two nightclubs that left 202 people dead, most of them foreigners.

The government has said it will waive taxes on hotels and restaurants in Bali and nine other tourist destinations for the next three months, while the state-owned oil company Pertamina is offering concession rates for jet fuel to enable airlines to pass on fare cuts.

The effectiveness of the stimulus measures will now have been impacted by the first coronavirus cases, but if there is a silver lining it may conceivably put an end to the conspiracy theories and perhaps even the distrust some Indonesians have felt towards the government.