A man wearing a face mask amid concerns of the Covid-19 coronavirus, walks on a street in Banda Aceh on March 28, 2020. Photo: AFP/Chaideer Mayuddin

JAKARTA – When Maritime Affairs and Investment Coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan recently raised the much-debated issue of whether a tropical climate may be Indonesia’s best defense against the fast-spreading coronavirus, critics of the government’s response predictably rolled their eyes.

The problem for Panjaitan, President Joko Widodo’s senior adviser on almost everything, is that all attention is on the lack of testing, widely believed to be the reason why the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 is far lower than what independent modeling suggests it should be.

Claims that the climate may be a mitigating factor leads irrevocably to the suspicion that the government is trying to find ways to cover up the true measure of the situation. There is little question that in delaying its initial response, it did lasting damage to its credibility. 

The bad news for an administration struggling to deal with the virus is that even local researchers believe that stopping the movement of people is a bigger factor than Indonesia’s hot weather and its supposedly fortuitous geograhical position sprawled along the equator.

Speaking on the opening day of the dry season, Panjaitan was clearly quoting from a recently-released Indonesian research paper when he told reporters: “The virus will be weaker in high-temperature locations, and that could be to the advantage of Indonesia compared to other countries.”

But to give him his due, he did acknowledge that the advantage would be futile if Indonesian citizens resisted physical distancing and other measures aimed slowing down the spread of the disease.

According to scientists, Covid-19 thrives in 1-10 degree Celsius temperatures, which means the summer in the northern hemisphere should slow the transmission rate. At least that’s the hope for many European countries that were also slow off the mark and are now paying for it through rising community contagion rates.

Map showing Covid-19 outbreak epicenters indicated by black circles situated in comparatively colder global climate regions. Source: Twitter

It is interesting to note there have been only 12,434 confirmed cases in all 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states, a miniscule number compared to China, Italy, Spain and the United States, and about the same as Canada, a country of just 37.6 million compared to Southeast Asia’s 622 million.

The lack of testing will always be cited as the reason for the relatively low number. It may well be valid, but by now – three weeks after Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic – the region surely should have expected an explosion of cases similar to Italy and Spain.

It has yet to happen, though it still could, particularly after some governments locked down their capital cities, driving unknown millions into the countryside where medical facilities are poor at best.

Indonesia, in particular, remains on tenterhooks, waiting for the other shoe to drop. With Widodo still refusing to lock down urban centers, the virus has spread to 32 of the 34 provinces with the capital of Jakarta as the epicenter, followed by the surrounding provinces of Banten and West Java.

East and Central Java are next in the total number of victims, but outside of Java, the country’s most populous island, only South Sulawesi, Bali, North Sumatra and East Kalimantan have more than 20 cases. Aceh and East Nusa Tenggara, at opposite ends of the country, reputedly have none so far.

Daily Covid-19 cases across the archipelago have been rising by more than 200 this week, with 10-20 deaths.

Collectively, the 10 ASEAN nations are recording only about 450 new daily cases, though testing in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar is almost non-existent. Thailand’s infection curve has fallen nearly consistently every day since the government imposed emergency rule lockdown measures.

A Filipino man in transit is tested for fever at a police checkpoint south of Manila amid a Covid-19 lockdown, March 15, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/George Calvelo

Indonesia’s current caseload hardly jibes with a National Intelligence Agency (BIN) assessment that predicts 27,300 cases by the end of April, 95,450  through May and peaking at 106,000 by the end of July. That means an additional 1,000 cases a day for the rest of this month.

Even then, compare that to comparatively chilly Italy, Spain, Germany and France, where the virus has surged dramatically over the past month, with new infections climbing by 5,000-7,000 a day and deaths ranging as high as 2,000 for France alone.

Some are attributing the disparity to the weather. A joint study by Indonesia’s Bureau of Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics (BKMG) and the Gadja Mada University (UGM) Faculty of Medicine and Public Health says an open environment with higher temperatures and humidity offers less suitable conditions for the virus to spread.

Indeed, overseas research shows that Covid-19 tends to be more stable in colder and drier conditions with a lower level of ultraviolet light, which could also have the effect of weakening immunity systems and making people more susceptible to the virus.  

But while the Indonesian researchers determine that climate conditions mean Indonesia is probably less at risk, they say a surge in the number of cases since early March, while not spectacular, indicates population mobility should now be the more overriding concern.

“Based on the facts and previous studies, it may be concluded that only if population mobility and social interaction can really be curbed, will atmospheric temperature and humidity play a more significant role in mitigating or reducing the risk of the outbreak spreading,” the BKMG/UGM study concludes.

US President Donald Trump may have done Indonesian and other Southeast Asian leaders few favors when he told a political rally in New Hampshire on February 10 that ”by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it (the virus) miraculously goes away.”

Pope Francis blows his nose as he leads Ash Wednesday mass which opens Lent, the forty-day period of abstinence and deprivation for Christians before Holy Week and Easter. Photo: AFP/Alberto Pizzoli

It was that same month Harvard University researchers concluded, after a study of different regions of China and five other Asian countries, that higher temperature and humidity “will not necessarily lead to declines in case counts.”

Since then, at least 11 studies have come up with largely similar conclusions, but, as University College London biologist Francois Balloux points out, determining the effect of seasonality can only come from tracking Covid-19 cases over time.

Another scientist from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine noted the example of Australia, where the number of infections – now at about 5,700 — accelerated during the summer. “I take from that,” he said, “that the summer months are not going to be highly protective for us.”

The virus is thought to survive up to four days on normal surfaces, but perhaps not so much on surfaces heated by the sun. In wintry Italy, where the temperature has hovered around nine degrees Celsius, the number of new cases has been four times that of steamy Thailand, where the mercury has hovered around 35 degrees in recent weeks.

Research from the “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918-19, which killed up to one million people, found that sunshine and fresh air were most helpful in stopping the spread of the disease and reducing mortality rates among those who had contracted it.

“If the Covid-19 crisis gets worse, history suggests it may be prudent to have tents and pre-fabricated open-air hospitals ready to deal with large numbers of seriously ill patients,” says Richard Hobday, an infection control officer writing in the American Journal of Health.

Some virologists believe that once a vaccine has been found, likely about a year from now by most estimates, Covid-19 will become seasonal like influenza and eventually settle down to normal patterns of transmission.

For now, the World Health Organization states on its website that the virus can be transmitted everywhere, “including areas with hot and humid weather.” But what is not addressed is to what degree and that may be important, literally and figuratively, in tropical climes like Indonesia.