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

JAKARTA – Indonesian Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto, already a controversial choice for President Joko Widodo’s Cabinet, is under fire in the diplomatic community and local media for allegedly purveying misinformation and playing down the seriousness of the coronavirus crisis as cases begin to surge.

In recent days, Widodo has taken a personal hand in public messaging and other decisions in what is seen as a lack of confidence in Putranto, 55, a three-star general who previously headed Jakarta’s elite Gatot Subroto military hospital, where presidents are normally treated.

While trying to head off public panic, Widodo and other senior palace officials all seem to realize what they are dealing with, particularly the potential economic impact of the epidemic, with economic growth predicted to be as low as 4.7% in the first quarter of 2020.

That, say Indonesian banking sources, is normally a reflection of loan growth, which has slipped significantly in the first two months. Last year, the economy grew by 4.9%, the first time it has dipped below 5% since 2015.

Indonesian health officials had been taking comfort in the fact that five of the first six cases were linked to a mother and daughter infected by a single Japanese visitor who tested positive for the virus after returning to her home in Malaysia in late February.

On Monday, however, the government announced 13 new cases, including two foreign citizens. It gave few details, apart from, acknowledging that several of the victims lived outside Jakarta.

The government has recently issued a list of six protocols on how to manage the crisis but when Widodo’s coronavirus spokesman Achmad Yulianto called Jakarta-based diplomats to a special briefing on the virus last week he reportedly left the international crowd underwhelmed.

With authorities subsequently reporting Indonesia’s first six Covid-19 cases last week, his lack of clarity on several issues only created more worries about how prepared Indonesia is for a significant outbreak of the virus beyond the current cluster.

“It left more questions than answers,” remarked one senior diplomat, pointing to the difficult relations which he says exist between the ministry and the World Health Organization (WHO). “There was a lack of clarity which certainly didn’t inspire any confidence.”

Indonesian Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto is under fire for down playing the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Twitter

The United States has taken the lead in urging the government to do more to look for new cases; so far about 650 people have been tested, compared with the tens of thousands in many of the 87 countries outside China that are now struggling to deal with the virus.

Myanmar, Laos and Brunei remain the only Southeast Asian nations which have yet to report the presence of Covid-19 inside their borders. Singapore (138), Malaysia (93), Thailand (50), Indonesia (19) and Vietnam (17) have the most cases, followed by the Philippines (6) and Cambodia (2).

Myanmar is a puzzle given its long, porous border with China’s southern province of Yunnan, where 4,830 cases have been reported to date. Even closing the official crossing points, which it claims to have enforced, would make little difference.

Seeking to play down skepticism, the March 8 edition of the state-mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar newspaper published details of the testing of 68 patients from 14 hospitals across the country. But it includes only one patient from a hospital on the China border — in the town of Muse which handles 70% of cross-border trade.

Reluctant to close its common border with Yunnan, neighboring Laos claims that new arrivals among the thousands of Chinese workers engaged in building the 414-kilometer China-Laos railway are quarantined for a required 14-day period.

What has concerned foreign embassies in Jakarta is some of the ill-considered statements from public officials, which while clearly meant to calm public fears has done little to educate the citizenry on what precautions to take. 


Indonesian Muslims hold dawn prayers on December 12, 2016. Photo: AFP/Kahfi Syaban Nasuti

Depok Mayor Muhammad Abdul Samad raised eyebrows, for example, by trotting out the claim that Muslims won’t catch the virus if they pray five times a day. The ablutions they perform beforehand, he said, will kill the virus.

Doctors quickly shot down that idea, but Health Minister Putranto, a devout Christian, had already set the tone with several inappropriate comments, including the premature assertion that the power of prayer was keeping the virus away.

That was also echoed by Vice President Ma’ruf Amin, a Muslim cleric who had vainly sought to get the then virus-free Indonesia excluded from Saudi Arabia’s March 4 ban on pilgrims journeying to Mecca for umrah, the minor hajj.

Bali remains Covid-19-free, but local authorities appear to be rolling the dice by letting hundreds of passengers aboard the Viking Sun cruise-ship to disembark, despite the fact that two passengers had reportedly shown flu-like symptoms.

Health officials claimed to have cleared all 1,300 passengers and crew after they spent overnight on the 48,000-ton ship, which was quarantined during a stopover in Semarang and turned away from Surabaya on its passage along the Java coast.

The Viking Sun is on a 245-day round-the-world voyage, the longest by any cruise ship, taking in 53 countries, 112 cities and six continents before ending up at its starting point in London in May.

Two Bali tourists – a Japanese and a Chinese —  tested positive for the virus after returning home last month, as did a 60-year-old New Zealand woman, whose flight had stopped on the popular tourist island in route from Tehran to Dubai.

Chinese tourists arrive at a fast boat pier in Serangan island in Denpasar on Indonesia’s resort island of Bali, January 26, 2020. Photo: AFP/Sonny Tumbelaka

Balinese authorities initially claimed the passengers stayed on the Emirates flight during the one hour 40-minute layover, but the airline quickly denied that. It is also understood that Bali was the final destination for half of those aboard.

The Bali tourist industry, once thriving on 100,000 to 150,000 Chinese tourists per month, has been hit hard by the epidemic. As many as 50 tourist agencies catering exclusively to the Chinese trade are dying, with little respite on the horizon.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) expects Indonesia to lose between US$1.7 billion and $3.4 billion in tourist receipts, depending on best and worst case scenarios. By comparison, the impact on Thailand could range as high as $11.9 billion, according to the bank.

S&P Global Ratings anticipates a “U-shaped” recovery should begin across the Asia-Pacific region later in the year, but by then it says the overall virus-related economic damage is likely to have reached about $211 billion.

While Indonesia is less exposed to global supply chains, Bank Indonesia has forecast economic growth will again slow to a three-year low of 4.9%, down from an earlier predicted 5.1%, given an expected slump in consumer spending.

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

Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati has warned that the fallout from the virus will be much more difficult to tackle than the 2008 financial crisis, which she steered Indonesia through relatively unscathed.

That, she says, is because the health crisis has hit the real economy, savaging not only tourism, but putting a drag on manufacturing, trade and investment at a time when Widodo is trying to push an ambitious, cure-all omnibus bill through Parliament.

Last week, the government also unveiled a 10.3 trillion rupiah ($725 million) stimulus package to support consumer spending and tourism. But filling the hole left by Chinese visitors will be impossible, particularly when businesses are also allowing only essential travel.