While it’s been almost two months since the public announcement of the coronavirus outbreak first detected in Wuhan, China, one country has remained seemingly unscathed by the outbreak.
In eight weeks, the virus has now spread to 33 countries in the past nine days. More than 87,000 people worldwide have been infected, with the virus appearing on every continent but Antarctica.
Indonesia, however, including the popular island of Bali, claims they have the resources to cope with a coronavirus outbreak, defending their detection procedures in the Southeast Asian nation of more than 260 million, where no cases have been reported.
The world’s fourth most populous nation has tested 141 suspected cases in total, a small figure for its population, sparking concern among medical professionals of a lack of vigilance and a risk of undetected cases.
Neighbouring Malaysia has reportedly run about 1000 tests and Britain more than 10,000.
“We can’t doubt our skills and the facts we gather,” said Muhammad Syahril, director of the Sulianti Saroso hospital in Jakarta, the capital, when asked why Indonesia had detected no cases.
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“If we don’t have cases, we don’t have cases,” he said in an interview at the hospital on Friday. “Why would we cover it up?”
Sulianti Saroso is Indonesia’s main hospital for handling suspected virus cases, among 135 designated for the task.
Their health minister defended the country’s screening process for coronavirus, saying the absence of confirmed cases in the world’s fourth-most populous nation is a “blessing from the Almighty”.
Indonesia’s efforts have included screening the temperatures of arrivals at airports and advising that any who later become unwell should contact health authorities.
The hospital offers 11 isolation rooms for patients with symptoms such as pneumonia, Mr Syahril said, adding that three people were being treated, while 21 were in isolation before testing negative.
The hospital was ready to tackle any outbreak, armed with experience gained in handling disease such as the 2003-2004 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), he said.
An Indonesian health ministry official previously told Reuters that some hospitals, particularly in eastern Indonesia, had smaller capacity to handle virus cases. Fuelling concern about Indonesia’s vulnerability, four infections were confirmed in travellers who had spent time there, including a Japanese national living in Malaysia and one returning to New Zealand from Iran via the resort island of Bali.
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The health ministry declined to comment but said its laboratory was accredited by the WHO.
On Friday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison cast doubt on Indonesia’s claims that it is free of coronavirus.
Mr Morrison told radio station 3AW that Indonesia’s zero infection rate was perhaps likely due to their low testing capability.
“It’s a very big country with a lot of islands, and it would be very difficult to be able to give absolute assurances about those numbers,” he said.
Australian National University associate professor of Indonesian politics Greg Fealy added that he didn’t think Indonesia was lying about their cases.
“I think more likely it’s the case that there are coronavirus patients there and they just haven’t been detected,” he said on 3AW.
While neighbouring countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore have smaller populations than Indonesia, they have each conducted at least 10 times more tests and recorded more than 150 cases between them.
Australia and Thailand reported their first deaths on Sunday, while the Dominican Republic and the Czech Republic recorded their first infections.
Italian authorities announced that the number of people infected in the country had surged 40 per cent to 1576 in 24 hours and five more people had died, bringing the death toll there to 34.
The number of infections in Ian, Iraq and South Korea, among other places, also rose. Cases in the US climbed to at least 72, with the first death inside the United States reported on Saturday – a man in his 50s in Washington state who had underlying health problems but hadn’t travelled to any affected areas.
Indonesia’s lack of confirmed cases “may suggest the potential for undetected cases”, researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in the United States said in a study this month.
They pointed to its direct air links with China’s central city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak.
Indonesia has barred entry to visitors who have been in China for 14 days and stopped flights. There are estimates that more than 100,000 people have travelled to Bali since the virus outbreak began towards the end of December. And as a top tourist spot for Chinese travellers as well, fears are growing that coronavirus could be spreading in Bali without being detected. However, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Smart Traveller website has not yet issued any coronavirus travel warning for Indonesia or Bali.