Tue, 06 May 2003

Indonesia SARS information being questioned by public

Sari P. Setiogi, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

While most southeast Asian countries have been hard hit by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Indonesia has the least number of victims, as reported by the World Health Organization (WHO), despite its lax measures for coping with the disease.

Health officers in Indonesia's major entry points, such as Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, Jakarta, and Ngurah Rai International Airport, Denpasar, have not yet started to carry out individual health examinations on departing and arriving passengers.

Lack of sophisticated equipment, such as thermal scanners, has made the officials rely on their own common sense and simple devices.

This situation has cast doubt among the public, particularly expatriates, on whether the government is capable of containing the flu-like disease, which has so far killed some 430 of over 6,000 people affected.

As of Monday, Indonesia's close neighbors Singapore recorded 25 deaths from 203 cases, Malaysia two deaths of six cases and the Philippines two deaths of three cases, according to WHO.

Since the world body declared SARS a global threat in mid- April, Indonesia has been relatively unaffected, with only two probable cases. Of the two, one has left for Hong Kong and the other has been discharged from the hospital due to his improving health status.

An expatriate who lives in Jakarta, Angeline, said that she was concerned at the disease, as no clear, accurate information was available from the authorities.

A foreign diplomat also made the same comment. He was confused by the changing data for SARS patients announced by the Ministry of Health.

"The minister said there were two probable cases, while another official said there were none," he observed.

Earlier last month, Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC), carried out a survey on 1,072 expatriate business executives working in 12 Asian countries, on their confidence in their host countries to deal with a major health crisis such as SARS.

The survey, as quoted by AFP, revealed that respondents had the least confidence in Indonesia, followed by India, China and Vietnam. On a scale of zero to 10, with zero the best grade and 10 the worst, Indonesia scored 9.14.

Tjandra Yoga Aditama, a pulmonologist from Persahabatan Hospital, East Jakarta, said he had encountered many questions raised by expatriates about SARS in the country, during his recent visit to Balikpapan in West Kalimantan.

"It is strange that Indonesia, which is geographically very close to Singapore and has a large flow of people traveling inside and outside the country, has a very small number of SARS patients," he said.

"But if we were to say that the government were covering something up, at least there should have been discussion on the reality with pulmonologists like us, but in this case that hasn't happened," said Tjandra.

"Suspected patients have also come from distinctly separate areas, unlike cases abroad, where most patients were related to each other, either as colleagues, neighbors, family, spouses or friends."

Secretary General of Communicable Disease Eradication and Environmental Health (P2M) Syafi'i Ahmad brushed aside suspicion that the government had withheld data on SARS, saying the precautionary measures taken by the government, "have proven to work effectively."

"We have prevented community transmission in the country by enforcing screening at entry ports," he said on Saturday.

Chinese authorities once tried to cover up the number of SARS- infected patients in their country, but later had to reveal the truth, as they could no longer contain the outbreaks anymore.

This prompted the dismissal of health minister Zhang Wenkang and Beijing mayor Meng Xuenong in April, to restore public faith in the government's capacity to deal with SARS.

Will the same thing happen here?

Just like the disease itself, which has left the planet with 101 burning questions, the spread of SARS in the country will remain an enigma to many.