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A commuter line medical officer provides masks to passengers at the Depok Baru Train Station in Depok, West Java, Indonesia. Photo: EPA-EFE

Coronavirus: Indonesia confirms first cases, says they are linked to Japanese citizen in Malaysia

  • The two patients are a 64-year-old woman and her 31-year-old daughter who came into contact with a Japanese national who works in Malaysia
  • There is growing mistrust in the government’s ability to tackle the virus threat, as authorities urge people to stay calm and not overreact
Two Indonesians have tested positive for the coronavirus after being in contact with an infected Japanese national, Indonesian President Joko Widodo revealed on Monday, marking the first confirmed cases in the world’s fourth most populous country.

The two people had been hospitalised in Jakarta, Widodo told reporters at the presidential palace in the capital.

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo. Photo: Reuters

The president said a 64-year-old woman and her 31-year-old daughter had tested positive after being in contact with a Japanese national who lived in Malaysia and was found to have the virus after returning from the trip to Indonesia.

Widodo said an Indonesian medical team had traced the movements of the Japanese visitor before uncovering the cases.

“After checks, they were in a sick state. This morning I got a report that the mother and the daughter tested positive for coronavirus,” Widodo said, adding they were being treated at Jakarta’s Sulianti Saroso infectious diseases hospital.

Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto told reporters the Japanese visitor was a family friend of the two women and had visited their house. He said authorities were checking who else may have had contact with the Japanese visitor.

Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan said he had set up a response team to help deal with the situation in the capital.

“We need to move quickly to anticipate this, because Jakarta is the gateway to Indonesia and the proportion of international interaction is the biggest in Jakarta,” Baswedan was quoted as saying by the online portal.

The confirmation of the first cases of coronavirus came after authorities had defended their screening processes, despite some medical experts raising concerns about a lack of vigilance and a risk of undetected cases in the Southeast Asian country of more than 260 million people.

A Harvard University study published last month, that used mathematical probabilities including travel destinations, concluded that Indonesia should have had confirmed infections, given the spread of the epidemic, with more than 60 countries affected.

The country had evacuated 238 citizens from Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the virus but gave them a clean bill of health after they were quarantined for two weeks. Health officials also did not identify any cases after a Chinese citizen who went to the tourist island of Bali tested positive for the virus when he returned to China.

Health workers spray disinfectant at the residence of two people who tested positive for coronavirus in Depok, Indonesia. Photo: EPA-EFE

A report in national daily The Jakarta Post on February 29 said the Indonesian agency tasked with testing suspected patients had only done 140 laboratory tests to date, and pointed out that already at least 11 Indonesians overseas had tested positive for the virus.

This includes crew members of the coronavirus-stricken Diamond Princess cruise ship that docked in Yokohama, Japan and a domestic helper in Singapore.

On Sunday, Singapore’s health ministry said three people – two citizens and a Myanmar national working as a domestic helper – tested positive for the virus after visiting Batam, part of Indonesia’s Riau Islands.

During the outbreak of the H5N1 bird flu virus more than a decade ago, nearly 200 people in Indonesia died at an 84 per cent death rate, prompting intervention by the World Health Organisation.

Coronavirus: First cases in Indonesia as global death toll exceeds 3,000

On Monday, Indonesian authorities urged people to stay calm and not overreact. Last month, there was a spate of panic buying in the Indonesian capital on fears that the government was just downplaying the virus threat, with consumers snapping out surgical face masks, antiseptic tissue wipes and household cleaners.

Taufiek Bawazier, who heads the chemical downstream and pharmacy directorate at Indonesia’s Industry Ministry, said about 10 to 15 companies produced 50 to 60 million surgical face masks every month, prioritising these for domestic use in hospitals and by the public.

The Indonesian Association of Medical Device Manufacturers said the domestic surgical face mask industry had attempted to increase production but faced constraints such as the lack of raw materials, as some of these items came from mainland China.

Indonesian health workers wearing face masks stand in front of an ambulance. Photo: AFP

But Ari Fahrial Syam, the dean of the medical faculty at the University of Indonesia, said he had observed people not using face masks properly, which defeated the purpose of doing so.

At the Jakarta airport one day, he found that many people had masks but least a third of them were not using them in the right way. This included wearing masks on their chin or neck or not tying them tightly enough around the face.

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Nadira Arnindya, a 23-year-old final year undergraduate student based in Jakarta referenced the growing mistrust people had towards the government’s ability to tackle the virus threat.

She pointed to how a test done on a patient in Semarang posthumously came back negative, after public alarm swirled as to whether the dead person had the virus.

“The results were held by the government for a while [before they revealed the result],” she said. “This made people have doubts. It’s much better to be transparent.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: First cases in Indonesia linked to Japanese citizen living in Malaysia