There are now more than 40,500 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus globally, with 319 of them in 24 countries outside of China – including Indonesia’s close neighbours Thailand (32 cases), Singapore (43) Vietnam (14), Malaysia (18), Cambodia (1) and the Philippines (3 cases, including 1 death).
Asked at what point the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade would consider upgrading its travel advice for Indonesia, a DFAT spokesman said it “keeps all its travel advisories under close review and is in regular contact with the Department of Health on the coronavirus outbreak”.
Curtin University infectious diseases expert Archie Clements said Indonesia’s ability to detect and respond to cases of the coronavirus was compromised by its “relatively weak” public health system.
“It’s entirely possible, you might even say likely, that there is undetected coronavirus there,” Professor Clements said. “Their ability to contain it, if it’s there, is going to be much weaker … Indonesia’s not like China and I would seriously question their ability to mount as effective a public health response as the Chinese government has.”
Indonesian President Joko Widodo did not specifically mention the coronavirus when he addressed the Australian Parliament on Monday as part of an official visit centred around the Indonesia-Australia free trade agreement, referring only to “cooperation” on health more broadly.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the topic was discussed in his meeting with Mr Joko, telling the Parliament the pair had talked about “working together to ensure we can contain the impact of the coronavirus between our two countries”.
In a joint statement released after the meeting, Mr Morrison said the two leaders would “continue to work closely with our medical advisers and the other arrangements that we have to ensure that we can both effectively carry out our responsibilities … to keep the health and well-being of our peoples in the highest possible order.”
Professor Terence Hill from the Australian National University’s Indonesia project said the issue was highly diplomatically sensitive as Indonesia was a proud, nationalistic country whose citizens were “increasingly resentful of what they regard as Western condescension”.
Professor Clements said Indonesia must be “encouraged to report” any cases of coronavirus it detected to avoid a repeat of the SARS epidemic, which spread quickly in part due to the Chinese government’s initial hesitation to share information about the outbreak.
“It’s not in anybody’s interest that any country tries to hide coronavirus,” he said.
Should an outbreak occur, he said, the Australian government should “implement appropriate responses” domestically “in order to minimise the impact on public health in Australia and also to support the Indonesian government to manage the epidemic if it occurs there”.
The World Health Organisation last week urged Indonesia to do more to prepare for a possible coronavirus outbreak, amid concerns about reporting and testing kit availability in the country of 270 million people.
Professor Murphy said on Tuesday he believed that Indonesia did “have some testing capability now”, after the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age last month revealed that the country did not have the right testing kits to detect the novel coronavirus.
World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday called on all countries to “step up efforts” to prepare for the possible arrival of the coronavirus, “do their utmost to contain it should it arrive” and share information in real time.
“This means lab capacity for rapid diagnosis, contact tracing and other tools in the public health arsenal,” he tweeted.
The detection of “a small number of cases” in people who had no travel history in China “may indicate more widespread transmission in other countries”, he said.
“In short, we may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg.”
Indonesian health authorities said on Monday they had conducted testing for coronavirus on 62 people and 59 results had come back negative. The final three tests were still being processed.
Indonesia has evacuated 240 citizens from Wuhan to the remote island of Natuna, where they have been quarantined.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.