JAKARTA – While Indonesia’s neighbors scrambled early this year to try to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the government of the world’s fourth most populous nation insisted that everything was fine.
In speeches, Indonesia’s health minister, Terawan Agus Putranto, told his country's people that they shouldn’t fear the virus, even as tens of thousands around the world were being infected.
Rather than focus on creating social distancing guidelines or ramping up testing, Putranto credited Indonesian “immunity” and the strength of prayer for the country's lack of any infections. He dismissed as “insulting" a report by Harvard University researchers that said Indonesia must have elected not to report its cases.
Meanwhile, Indonesia’s southern neighbor Australia and some fellow Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore were quick to address the crisis, taking action as early as late January that included containment and tracing measures.
Indonesia did not even confirm its first case of the virus until early March. As of Tuesday, the nation had reported at least 7,135 infections — including 616 deaths. That's more COVID-19 fatalities than all other Asian counties except China.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo acknowledged last month that the government chose to keep the public misinformed about the state of the coronavirus in the country.
“Indeed, we did not deliver certain information to the public because we did not want to stir panic,” he said.
Suspicion over the lack of cases in Indonesia grew when a Chinese tourist who had traveled to the Indonesia resort island of Bali from Wuhan — the central Chinese city where the pandemic started late last year — tested positive for the coronavirus when he returned to China in early February.
Indonesian authorities played down the event, with Defense Minister Muhammad Mahfud declaring, “The coronavirus does not exist in Indonesia.”
Widodo, perhaps spurred by a desire for economic growth, promoted Putranto’s theories, ignoring the likelihood that the vast archipelago nation had virus cases.
But there was public skepticism, especially after local media reported cases of Indonesian patients dying after suffering pneumonia-like symptoms. The government's apparent lack of transparency caused many Indonesians to seek information on their own about social distancing. Some quarantined themselves.
Pandu Riono, an epidemiology expert at the University of Indonesia, estimated that the country had cases of the virus as early as January that went undetected because of limited testing capabilities.
The turning point came when the government announced the country's two first cases on March 2. Dozens more infections were confirmed within weeks, prompting Widodo’s administration to order nationwide social distancing and the suspension of all nonessential activities.
For many Indonesians, it was too little, too late.
“This outbreak affected my life worse than a tsunami,” said Risti Ameliana, a resident of Jakarta, Indonesia's capital. “But falling trust in government makes it harder, as this is a global pandemic.”
Widodo's scramble to curb the virus after a late start caused confusion among his government ministers in issuing regulations, said Bivitri Susanti, a law and political analyst from Indonesia’s Jentera School of Law.
“Jokowi was too slow in leading the war against this pandemic crisis,” she said, using Widodo's popular nickname. “Instead, he showed his weak leadership.”
Widodo on March 13 appointed the National Disaster Mitigation Agency's head, Doni Monardo, to lead the COVID-19 national task force and allowed more labs to test for the coronavirus. He also has instructed his ministers and the task force to be transparent with the public.
Testing remains a major problem. Since the first cases were confirmed, Indonesia has conducted fewer than 50,000 tests — or just 180 per 1 million people, according to government spokesman Achmad Yurianto.
At least 37 labs have been equipped so far for coronavirus testing, according to Monardo, less than half the government's goal of 78 labs that can conduct 10,000 tests daily.
Monardo said Indonesia is also faces shortages of essential medical supplies, including personal protective equipment for health care workers. The shortages have contributed to the deaths of at least 32 doctors and 12 nurses, he said.
Widodo on Monday ordered all governors, district chiefs and mayors to intensify the tracking and isolation of people exposed to the virus.
“The government cannot work alone,” Widodo said.
Widodo declared a state of “health emergency” earlier this month, allowing local leaders to impose enforceable restrictions to contain the virus across the sprawling nation of more than 260 million people and 17,000 islands.
The government also has created funding options to raise 1,000 trillion rupiah ($62 billion) to finance a record stimulus package to protect the economy from recession. As of March, it had raised 24% of the financing for the fiscal shortfall by issuing debt, Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati said.
Yet worries loom over how the virus could spread in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, during Ramadan, the monthlong Islamic holiday that begins this week when millions of Indonesians traditionally return to their hometowns to visit relatives.
There’s a chance Indonesia “will face an explosion of coronavirus cases that could infect 1 million people after Ramadan" unless the government takes stricter measures, said Riono, the epidemiology expert.
Widodo on Tuesday announced that the government would ban all people from returning to their hometowns next month to celebrate Eid, which marks the end of the dawn-to-sunset fasting during Ramadan.
Widodo, however, has ruled out a complete lockdown of the country, citing Indonesian’s cultural characteristics, iunique demography and potential crippling economic damage. Instead, he opted for large-scale social distancing restrictions.
That put him at odds with Jakarta Gov. Anies Baswedan, a political rival who has been seeking tougher restrictions amid growing concerns about undetected cases in the capital and its metropolitan area, home to 30 million people.
Jakarta has become the epicenter of the outbreak in Indonesia, confirming at least 3,260 cases as of Tuesday, including 298 deaths.
The central government finally relented to Baswedan’s request for enforceable restrictions earlier this month, with several other regions of the country quickly following.
Associated Press writers Victoria Milko and Edna Tarigan contributed to this report.