A s the novel coronavirus sweeps Indonesia, fears are growing not only that it could overwhelm the health care system, but that it will cause widespread discrimination in a country that has long struggled with anti-Chinese sentiment. “ Social media is more scary than Covid-19,” said Endar, the owner of Ho Teh Tiam, a traditional Chinese tea shop in the city of Medan, North Sumatra, referring to the disease caused by the virus. Endar, who is ethnic Chinese, said the anti-Chinese sentiment he had seen online and calls on apps like Instagram for the expulsion of Chinese workers in Indonesia were “worse than the actual health crisis”. “That’s what we’re really afraid of,” he said. “That hate crimes could mushroom from social media. We have to try and get through this together. We need to focus on the real problem: the virus.” Racist attacks and discrimination against ethnic Chinese have risen worldwide since the discovery of the novel coronavirus in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, but are particularly worrying in Indonesia, given the historical animosities. RACIAL TENSIONS Chinese-Indonesians were targeted in the anti-communist purges that took place in the 1960s under the rule of former president Suharto and resulted in more than 500,000 deaths. During Suharto’s New Order regime, Chinese literature and language classes were banned, as were traditional Chinese celebrations including the Lunar New Year . Chinese influence in Indonesia was thought to be associated with communism and therefore at odds with state ideology. The Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) was disbanded and banned in 1966. Racial tensions have continued to flare periodically, including in 1998 when race riots, which originated in the city of Medan, swept the country, leaving more than 1,000 people dead, including many ethnic-Chinese. The riots led to the fall of Suharto after 30 years in power and were linked to the 1998 financial crisis that ravaged Indonesia. Chinese-Indonesians were accused of hoarding wealth and taking jobs away from the many “indigenous” Indonesians who lived in poverty. In the years since, hoaxes involving Chinese-Indonesians have spread online, including in 2016 when a batch of chillies from China were incorrectly identified as “biological weapons”. With the advent of Covid-19, these tensions have surfaced again, with calls on Twitter for a fatwa, or a non-legally binding pronouncement on Islamic law, to bar Chinese-Indonesians and Chinese nationals from entering Indonesia. These calls were in part a reactivation of long-held anti-Chinese tropes in Indonesia as well as a reaction to a fatwa issued on March 16 by the Muslim Ulema Council (MUI), Indonesia’s largest clerical body, stating that Muslims should no longer attend prayers at local mosques in areas with a high risk of contagion. According to the MUI, Friday prayers are still mandatory in places with low risk of transmission, although late on Thursday the governor of Jakarta, Anies Baswedan, said all mosques and churches in the capital would be closed for two weeks. SLUGGISH RESPONSE Indonesia, which is home to over 260 million people, has been widely criticised for being too slow in its response to the coronavirus, with Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto attributing Indonesia’s initial lack of cases some weeks ago to the “power of prayer”. Since then the country has recorded 450 infections and 38 deaths. The government believes 700,000 people could be infected. Efforts to encourage social distancing to slow the spread of the virus have had a mixed response, particularly among religious communities. This week, a religious gathering in South Sulawesi was cancelled at the last minute after 8,000 Muslim pilgrims had already arrived in the city of Gowa. The same group, Jamaah Tabligh, had held a similar event in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from February 27 to March 1 which was attended by 16,000 worshippers, 500 of whom tested positive for the virus in Malaysia alone . On March 19, hundreds of pilgrims attended the ordination of Siprianus Hormat as the new Bishop of Ruteng in East Nusa Tenggara. On Thursday, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said he had issued instructions for faster testing and test kits. “I demand rapid tests be carried out across the country for early detection of infection,” he said in a short statement at the Presidential Palace. The new kits are faster as they test blood serum rather than larynx or nasal fluid, and can be conducted at any laboratory in the country rather than the standard testing kits which have to be conducted in Level 2 Biosafety laboratories. There are fears that the increase in testing will also lead to more and more patients testing positive, overwhelming hospitals which are already at capacity and putting health workers at increased risk. RISK TO WORKERS According to experts on the ground, Indonesia is now racing to make up for lost time after failing to implement testing and social distancing initiatives early on, especially in areas outside the capital city of Jakarta. Dr Ade Rahmaini, the head of the Covid-19 coordinating team at Adam Malik Hospital in Medan, said isolation rooms at the hospital were now full and patients were waiting to be referred to other hospitals across the province. “We have 11 isolation rooms and two more patients are awaiting hospital referrals,” she said. “We still have enough protective equipment and have been offered donations of more from NGOs and local residents.” Medan has a population of just over 2 million people. North Sumatra’s governor, Edy Rahmayadi, has promised that 1,000 isolation rooms will be prepared across North Sumatra in the coming weeks. But the head of Amnesty Indonesia, Usman Hamid, said health workers were at risk in other parts of Indonesia and that at a hospital in Tasikmalaya, West Java, some workers transporting patients suspected of having Covid-19 had to use plastic raincoats instead of hazmat suits. “Yesterday, Amnesty Indonesia issued a joint statement with associations of medical doctors, nurses and other health workers,” he said. “We urged the government to provide them with adequate and quality personal protective equipment, information, training and psychosocial support. There are no effective mechanisms in place so far to guarantee support for the families of health workers or others who have died or become ill as a consequence of exposure to Covid-19. This all puts so many people at risk.” ■ Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). 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