The updated testing guidelines came from the Communicable Diseases Network Australia, which is chaired by Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy – but they stand in contrast to the federal health department’s advice that only patients who have travelled to China should be tested.
Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Harry Nespolon said any patients who presented with respiratory symptoms after returning from Bali or Indonesia – however mild – should be tested for the novel coronavirus.
“Indonesia’s got a population of 267 million people, it has almost no effective screening – they say they do, but they probably don’t,” he said.
“If you’re looking at the stats, there should be some cases in Indonesia.”
University of Queensland professor of virology Ian Mackay said it was “hard to believe” that Indonesia did not have a single case of COVID-19 and that “it’s a big country, it’s likely” to have undetected infections.
“Perhaps people [health authorities] think there should be patients there and they are applying a precautionary principle, on the off chance there are cases there in such a populous country, which is so interlinked with China,” he said.
A study by a group of Harvard University researchers, who analysed flights from China in the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, found it was statistically unlikely the virus was not in Indonesia.
In 2019, an average 25,000 people flew between Australia and Bali each week, meaning about 100,000 people have likely made the trip since the outbreak started in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late December.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne, who has carefully avoided criticism of Indonesia’s reponse to the coronavirus, said earlier this month that Australia was working “very closely with Indonesian health authorities” and had coronavirus testing kits available to other countries in the region. Indonesia has not requested assistance.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade does not mention coronavirus in the health risk section of its Indonesia travel advice – unlike Thailand, which carries a coronavirus health warning.
Achmad Yurianto, the secretary-general of the Indonesian Health Department’s Disease Prevention and Control directorate, told The Herald and The Age he was unconcerned about the health warning issued to Australian doctors.
“Maybe they are not trusting us but it’s okay. It’s okay if they are suspicious of Indonesians [entering Australia] because they are not convinced [by Indonesia’s testing regime], it is fine,” he said.
“We apply strict policies but we don’t do tests on everybody.”
Thus far, Indonesia has tested just 112 people for Covid-19, with 108 tests negative and four still being processed.
This figure is orders of magnitude smaller than the hundreds or even thousands of tests conducted by other countries in south-east Asia, all of which also have much smaller populations.
Indonesian health minister Terawan Agus Putranto has repeatedly said that his country’s people have avoided contracting the coronavirus through prayer.
China is one of Indonesia’s top five source countries for tourists, with about 2.2 million people having travelled from China to Indonesia in 2019, including 1.2 million to Bali.
Tens of thousands of people fly between Australia and Indonesia each week – including 174 flights to and from Bali, our second most visited travel destination after New Zealand.
With Melissa Cunningham and Karuni Rompies
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
James Massola is south-east Asia correspondent based in Jakarta. He was previously chief political correspondent, based in Canberra. He has been a Walkley and Quills finalist on three occasions, won a Kennedy Award for outstanding foreign correspondent and is the author of The Great Cave Rescue.
Rachel Clun is a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald.