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Indonesia to ban foreign arrivals as it declares health emergency

President signs regulation to ease budget deficit rule for three years

A worker wearing a protective suit sprays disinfectant at the international arrivals terminal of Soekarno-Hatta Airport near Jakarta, Indonesia, on March 13.

JAKARTA -- Indonesia declared a national public health emergency on Tuesday and will ban all foreign arrivals to the country, as the Southeast Asian nation tries to stem the spread of the new coronavirus.

The decision comes as the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the archipelago reached 1,528 people, with 136 deaths, on Tuesday. The country did not have a single confirmed case at the start of March. Indonesia's death rate from the disease of close to 9% is one of the highest in the world.

"The government has determined COVID-19 as a type of disease causing community emergencies. Therefore, the government is setting out public emergency status," President Joko Widodo said on Tuesday.

Around the half of the confirmed cases are in Jakarta, and the city, along with several other provincial governments, has itself declared a state of emergency, closing down schools and entertainment venues. There has been no nationwide lockdown, however, as the president remains reluctant to impose a policy that could hurt the country's economy, which was already reeling from China's economic slowdown.

"To overcome [the virus], I decided the option we [should] choose is a large-scale limitation [on social activities]," Widodo said, adding that the government had issued a regulation on social restrictions. "I ask regional [leaders] not to make their own policies that are not coordinated ... We have to learn from the experience of other countries, but we cannot just imitate them, because every country has its own characteristics."

The president also announced on Tuesday a budget of 405.1 trillion rupiah ($24.75 billion) to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus on the economy. Measures include increased health expenditure, the expansion of social safety nets and the restructuring of loans, especially for small and micro-sized businesses. It also includes a fiscal stimulus package covering the relaxation of individual income tax in labour intensive industries and a reduction of corporate income tax from 25% to 22%.

Widodo said he had signed a government regulation in lieu of a law to accommodate these changes, as well as relaxing the country's legal limit for state budget deficits for this year, next year and for 2022. Indonesian law caps the budget deficit to 3% of gross domestic product for a fiscal year. He said the deficit this year was likely to swell to 5%.

The draft is subject to parliamentary approval, but the legislature had earlier called on the government to relax the deficit ceiling.This will be the first time for Indonesia to breach the 3% limit since introducing the law in 2003.

On the banning of foreign visitor arrivals, announced earlier in the day, Retno Marsudi, the country's foreign minister, said "the president has decided that existing policies need to be strengthened. It has been decided that all visits and transits by foreigners to Indonesian territory will be temporarily stopped."

She added that the government would draw up regulations in order to impose the ban. Immigration authorities said it would take effect by April 2.

Exceptions to the ban included foreigners with work permits and diplomats, Marsudi said. Indonesian nationals returning to the country will also undergo stricter screening processes.

Before the announcement, the president told ministers that countries like China, South Korea and Singapore "currently face many imported cases brought from abroad" and that Indonesia's priority "is not only to control the mobility of people within the country, but also to control mobility between countries."

Meanwhile, an official at the Ministry of Human Rights said that the country was planning to release 30,000 prisoners early in order to avoid the spread of the coronavirus in its overcrowded prisons. The ministry was currently drawing up a list of who was eligible for parole, the official said. Prisons across the world have been hot spots for the transmission of COVID-19.

Also on Tuesday, Vietnam announced 15 days of enhanced social distancing nationwide from midnight.

Public gatherings of more than two people will be banned in the country, and people will have to keep a distance of at least two meters between them.

Vietnam has confirmed more than 200 cases of the virus, but estimates there could have been more than 3,100 infections.

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