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Indonesian Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto has attributed the country’s lack of coronavirus cases to prayer. Photo: Reuters

‘We owe it to God’: as Indonesia prays, how is it keeping the coronavirus at bay?

  • Indonesia’s health minister attributes the country’s lack of coronavirus cases to prayer – despite a study showing it should have had cases by now
  • But concerns have been raised, especially after the response to the bird flu virus a decade ago, which required World Health Organisation intervention
Several weeks into the new coronavirus outbreak, Indonesia continues to remain completely free of the disease, despite its neighbours reporting numerous confirmed cases.
The country’s top health official is under increasing pressure to explain why no cases have been reported, especially in light of a recent Harvard University study that used mathematical probabilities including travel destinations to conclude that Indonesia should have had confirmed infections by now.

“We owe it to God,” said Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto, a military doctor and radiologist whose expertise does not include pandemic viruses. “It’s because of our prayers. We do not wish upon something like that will reach Indonesia.”

An Indonesian student who was quarantined in Natuna after leaving the coronavirus-stricken city of Wuhan, hugs a friend after being released. Photo: EPA-EFE

Indonesia has stepped up medical monitoring and cancelled commercial flights to and from mainland China, but the religious explanation is raising eyebrows among health professionals, especially after the country’s response to previous epidemics such as Sars, Ebola or bird flu.

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

Marc Lipsitch, a Harvard professor who helped produce the research identifying countries that could have undetected cases of the virus, defended the findings, despite the Indonesian government’s efforts to play down the threat.

The Indonesian health ministry has reported 62 cases of suspected coronavirus infections, and all of those tested have turned out negative. Many others remain untested.

The 238 Indonesians who were evacuated from Wuhan, China, the virus epicentre, earlier this month and quarantined for two weeks in Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, were released over the weekend after being given a clean bill of health.

Indonesian health officials are also scrambling to determine whether a Chinese tourist who contracted the coronavirus did so while in Bali, or after he returned to China earlier this month.

Putranto angrily rejected the Harvard assessment, sticking to Indonesia’s own health monitoring capabilities – as well as divine intervention.

“Tell Harvard to come to Indonesia. I will order the doors to be opened for them to see. There is nothing that is covered up,” Terawan fumed. 

Others, however, are taking a more earthly view of the situation.

“We have the human rights angle to this story. The most basic principle is to be transparent – not to cover up what happened, whether in Malaysia, China or Indonesia. That is the principle,” said Andreas Harsono, senior research at Human Rights Watch Indonesia.

“We don’t know for sure how much the government wants to cooperate with the WHO or the Ministry of Health. I’m afraid that the virus is already here. We don’t know for sure,” he said.

People wearing surgical masks are seen at a station in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: Reuters

“We prayed a lot for the victims and those that are still in China and its surroundings,” said a 22-year-old worshipper at the St. Bartolomeus Taman Galaxi church, who declined to give her name.

During Friday prayers last week, imams across the country also mentioned the virus.

Ahmad Kamal, leader of a mosque in the city of Tanggerang, just outside the capital Jakarta, urged his followers not to believe “fake news” about coronavirus, specifically mentioning suspect causes and cures.

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There are a number of hoaxes in Indonesia, including that the coronavirus spreads from bats, so fruit dates must be thoroughly washed. There are also rumours that the disease spreads through the postal service; Chinese food; the breath of Chinese-Indonesians; Chinese television shows and even Chinese-made mobile phones. Hoax cures include garlic, rubbing oils and hot water.

These have all been widely debunked. And religious leaders have distanced themselves from religiously charged statements from the national government.

“A Muslim must be clever in responding to the news and cross-check first,” Ahmad Kamal said.