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Coronavirus

Indonesia's first coronavirus case tied to Japanese national

World's fourth-most populous nation curiously had zero infections

Women wear masks in Jakarta on Feb. 26. The new cases have dispelled theories as to why Indonesia seemed to have escaped coronavirus infections. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

JAKARTA -- After weeks as one of Asia's only major nations with no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, Indonesia confirmed that two women in the country had been infected, President Joko Widodo said on Monday.

A 64-year-old woman and her 31-year-old daughter, who live outside Jakarta in Depok, West Java Province, were known to have been in contact with a Japanese national who had tested positive in Malaysia after traveling from Indonesia.

Indonesian health officials have come under scrutiny after reporting no cases of COVID-19 before Monday's announcement. The startling lack of infections in the world's fourth most populous nation was seen as unlikely. Neighboring Singapore and Malaysia have reported cases, and many people fly between Indonesia and China, the center of the crisis, and Japan, which has reported several hundred cases.

Following the announcement, people crowded supermarkets and convenience stores in greater Jakarta on Monday night, hoarding items such as instant noodles, tissues and sanitizers. Similar actions have been seen in other Asian nations.

The public has questioned the country's capacity to detect the virus, with speculation rife that the government purposefully hid cases so as not to harm the economy. Critics have also attacked the government for providing incentives to airlines and hotels to offer customer discounts, saying this is not the time to encourage people to travel.

In response to critics, Widodo said that his government is "serious" about dealing with the coronavirus.

"We are guarding 135 entry points to our country, be they on land, through the sea or by air. All of them are being closely guarded, even though it's not easy," the president said.

He added that the government is taking measures to deal with an outbreak, preparing isolation facilities in more than 100 hospitals and equipping itself with tools that "meet international standards." He also stated that money has been allocated to deal with the virus. "We have a budget, and it will be prioritized to handle this," he said.

Other senior government figures had given reasons such as the power of prayer and the immune systems of Indonesian people for the lack of infections in the country.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, left, and Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto speak during Monday's news conference at the president's Jakarta office.   © Reuters

Monday's announcement of the two cases has dispelled theories as to why the coronavirus seemed to have bypassed Indonesia. Those leaning toward science -- despite little evidence -- had speculated that tropical heat probably curbed viral growth in Indonesia, or that Indonesians might be immune to the virus.

Meanwhile, some Muslim clerics, including Vice President Ma'ruf Amin, believed it was due to the power of prayer.

"Many clerics and ulema always read the Qunut prayer, including me. That's why corona has stayed away from Indonesia," Amin said during a Muslim congress in Bangka Belitung Province over the weekend, according to local media. He had asked Saudi Arabia to exclude Indonesian pilgrims from its temporary ban, citing lack of cases in the country.

Now, however, arrivals at Indonesian airports are being screened, as the Japanese national who apparently infected the two Indonesian women seemed to have transited the country without being flagged. Local media began quoting travelers who were shocked to find health checks at Indonesian airports much less strict compared with other airports in the region.

But Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto on Monday again downplayed concerns over the country's ability to detect infected travelers, saying it could be simply a case of good health and therefore good immune systems. He cited Indonesian crew members on the World Dream cruise ship near Singapore who tested negative, despite some passengers of the cruise being diagnosed with the virus.

"The 188 crew members surely had close contact with eight positive patients that disembarked in Hong Kong," Putranto said. "But the fact is, upon evacuation to Indonesia ... the result is they all tested negative for coronavirus. Why negative? Because of their bodies' good immune system."

Long lines at Jakarta supermarkets were seen late Monday after the announcement of Indonesia's first cases. (Photo by Jun Suzuki)

On the new cases, Widodo told reporters at his office in Jakarta that "the health ministry tracked the Japanese national's [whereabouts] in Indonesia" and that the person had contact with two other people -- the mother and daughter.

The two patients are currently isolated at Sulianti Saroso Hospital in Jakarta, a national center for contagious diseases, according to Putranto.

The minister said the two patients showed flu-like symptoms, including coughing, fever and difficulty breathing, before testing positive for COVID-19 on Monday morning. Health officials are now checking other people who may have had close contact with the two women, he added.

Malaysia's health ministry identified a 41-year-old Japanese woman working in Malaysia as its 24th case. She had traveled to Japan in January and to Indonesia in early February, before testing positive in Malaysia last week.

Concerns increased following reports of people who tested positive after traveling to Indonesia.

On Monday, The Jakarta Post said that two Singapore citizens and a Myanmar national tested positive in Singapore after recently visiting Batam, an Indonesian island close to Singapore. Last week, Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported that a Japanese man in his 60s tested positive after traveling on a family vacation to Indonesia in mid-February.

Indonesia had earlier pulled 238 of its citizens out of the Chinese city of Wuhan, and released all of them after being quarantined for 14 days at a military base on the Natuna Islands in early February.

More recently, it evacuated 188 Indonesian crew members from the World Dream, and put all of them under a 14-day quarantine starting last Friday on Sebaru Island, north of Jakarta.

As many as 69 Indonesians aboard the Diamond Princess from Japan arrived in Indonesia on Sunday night and will also be quarantined in Sebaru. Two of them had tested positive while in Japan but were later declared virus-free.

The benchmark Jakarta Composite Index fell as much as 1.7% on Monday.

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