JAKARTA – Indonesia’s government, in a single-minded effort to ward off public panic, remains reluctant to reveal the full geographic breadth of its Covid-19 outbreak in the wide-reaching archipelago’s 34 provinces.
The only publicly acknowledged cases outside of the heavily-populated island of Java so far have been in West and North Sumatra, Lampung, Riau, West and East Kalimantan, North Sulawesi and Bali.
Health Ministry officials are giving only daily updates on the total number of patients, with the official tally now at 309 and climbing steady by the day.
“I think its widespread across the archipelago, but while it is particularly prevalent in urban centers like Jakarta and Bali, it does not appear to be showing up so much among younger people below the age of 30,” one senior Western diplomat told Asia Times.
With the death toll rising from 12 to 25 in the past two days, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security puts Indonesia’s mortality rate at more than 8%, the highest in the world ahead of even Italy, Iran, China, Japan and Spain.
Health experts suspect the toll is almost certainly higher, pointing to an elevated morbidity rate among older people suffering from a range of other illnesses who were not tested or, as is common in Indonesia, never subject to a post-mortem autopsy.
In some regions, like Nusa Tenggara to the east of Bali, the provincial government in the western part of the island chain has declared a state of emergency, while authorities in the east are conducting business as usual because they claim to be virus-free.
Even in Bali, where 114,100 tourists from 165 countries still arrived in the first 12 days of March, members of the diplomatic and private medical community have no real idea of the number of new cases since a British woman died there on March 11.
Across the Bali Strait, in East Java, only six confirmed cases have been reported so far. Indeed, apart from around the neighboring Central Java cities of Solo and Jogjakarta, most cases on the island are still concentrated in Jakarta and in the surrounding provinces of West Java and Banten.
Diplomats believe that Singapore’s new travel restrictions, aimed at preventing a threatened “second wave” of infections, were implemented because of a growing rate of positive tests among Indonesians arriving from the nearby industrial island of Batam.
“We are concerned about countries where there are few reported cases of the virus, where we already see exported cases from these countries,” National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said this week. “That includes countries around us.”
An undetermined number of Indonesian citizens of Chinese descent have already shifted residence to Singapore because of fears that as economic conditions worsen they will again become the target of public unrest, as they were in the riots of 1997-98.
Some business risk consultancies are warning their clients about rising socio-economic tensions and the potential for political groups to begin blaming scapegoats for the coronavirus outbreak. That, says one assessment, could lead to community violence.
President Joko Widodo has so far resisted calls to sack Health Minister Terawan Putranto, a military doctor now widely reviled for failing to take the pandemic seriously. Said one government official: “In Javanese political culture, he will only be removed after the crisis is over.”
Government insiders say the head of the newly formed Covid-19 Task Force, Lieutenant General Doni Monardo, has already complained about Putranto’s stubborn attitude in the face of growing public apprehension about how bad the crisis is likely to get.
Only this week, Maritime Affairs and Investment Coordinating Minister Luihut Panjaitan, Widodo’s senior political adviser and often regarded as the country’s second most powerful figure, had to intervene to remove Health Ministry red tape holding up a shipment of 500,000 testing kits from China.
Panjaitan also approved the entry on March 18 of the first Chinese workers to be allowed back into the country since the crisis began, all of whom had spent the previous 14 days in quarantine in what was described as a “neighboring” country.
The 49 engineers flew on a chartered jet into Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi, before boarding a ship to the site of a major nickel smelter project in Halmahera, which slowed to a virtual standstill after Indonesia stopped all flights from China on February 5.
While Widodo has taken over as crisis manager, critics are concerned that he often appears to be paying more attention to Covid-19’s impact on the economy than on doing more to bolster the country’s creaking health system that will be ill-equipped to deal with a massive medical emergency.
Worried about the economic and social impact, the president has also resisted imposing a partial lockdown of Jakarta and West Java, despite the urging of the capital’s governor, Anies Baswedan, who often appears to be getting out ahead of the central government in imposing stricter containment measures.
“We believe Jakarta should have stopped activities in the capital and prevented people from coming to or leaving the city,” he said on Tuesday. “We can’t decide this ourselves, but there is a need to act fast.”
Although there has been a dramatic slowdown in business activity, with many people working from home, Widodo was forced to pointedly remind provincial leaders that only he can approve a lockdown policy at either the regional or national level.
Only 1,255 people have been tested for the virus since the country’s first confirmed case on March 2, compared with the 2,000 tests conducted almost daily in Singapore. But that will change after Indonesia takes delivery of the shipment of testing kits from China.
For all the talk of social distancing, the message isn’t always getting through. On March 15, 1,000 workers gathered in central Jakarta to protest consideration of Widodo’s ambitious Omnibus Bill, a projected economic cure-all that is now on hold in the House of Representatives.
This week, the global proselytizing movement Tablighi Jama’at was forced to cancel a gathering of 8,000 Muslim devotees from Indonesia and other parts of Asia near the South Sulawesi capital of Makassar, apparently at the urging of former vice president Jusuf Kalla, chairman of the Indonesian Red Cross.
Local officials struggled to understand why the event was scheduled to go ahead in the first place, coming only a fortnight after a similar gathering near Kuala Lumpur, which has now been linked to as many as half of the 800 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Malaysia.
Diplomats were told at a recent briefing that only 2,000 “critical care” beds were available across Indonesia, of which 40% were already taken up by patients suffering from non-virus diseases, including dengue fever. Some have suggested Covid-19 is being misdiagnosed, intentionally or otherwise, as dengue.
Although there are now 360 hospitals set aside for coronavirus referrals, specialized testing and other equipment to deal with the pandemic is limited. Earlier, when there were only 132 Covid-19 designated hospitals, only 88 ventilators were available. In West Kalimantan, there is only one.