Critical Spectator started a store! Visit VeryWell.sg
I’ve always thought no writer should depend on others paying him for his writing but rather that his work should be supported by a valuable business of unrelated nature.
When you write for money you naturally become a slave of your audience – and often end up pandering to it to keep the funds flowing. But when you don’t depend on it for income you can afford far more independence of thought, to write candidly even about difficult matters.
In this spirit I’ve long considered starting an ecommerce business which would revolve around selected quality products in a variety of categories – delivering value in a different way. Unexpectedly, the coronavirus outbreak provided an incentive to start, due to sudden and persistent shortages of high quality disinfectants and sanitizers in Singapore – that I have realized I could help fill by importing them from Europe. And so I have been shipping medical-grade products by priority air freight over the past three weeks – bringing them to you on verywell.sg.
This is only the beginning and, if all goes well, you can expect to see much more in the coming months – more products and more categories. Purchases made in the store will help me run and develop this blog – so please share the word around! Thank you.
For weeks it has remained mainly a problem within China, with limited cases reported beyond its borders. As time went by, however, countries around the world started reporting a rapidly growing number of infections. South Korea, Italy, Iran exploded in the past two weeks, with over 7000 cases each as of today. France, Germany and Spain have pierced 1000 and the numbers are growing everywhere around. The virus finally reached Africa and South America – and is now present on all inhabited continents.
But the outbreak started in Asia affecting China and its neighbors first and foremost. And yet, for weeks the biggest country in Southeast Asia – Indonesia – had failed to report a single case. What should normally be considered a good thing, in this particular case is very worrying – not only to its inhabitants but to all of us.
Ignorance Isn’t Always Bliss
While everybody was panicking, Indonesian leaders appeared to have been rather cheerful. The country’s health minister exclaimed that it was god’s intervention and response to Indonesian prayers that spared the country – surely not something you want to hear from a person responsible for national healthcare.
If a nation relies on prayers for good health of its inhabitants surely we may question whether it belongs in this century at all.
Naturally, one could quip that Indonesia, being a democracy after all, gets only as good leaders as its people elect. The problem is, however, that their mind-boggling incompetence threatens everybody in the immediate neighborhood – as well as many far away.
In a globalized world people travel by the millions every single day. Nearly every inhabited place on our planet is reachable within 24 hours, thanks to jet airliners criss-crossing the skies without rest.
Being a tropical nation of many picturesque wonders of nature, islands and beaches, Indonesia is a major tourist destination, attracting visitors from all over the world – particularly during the winter months in the northern Hemisphere, when Europeans and Asians alike descend on the place seeking warm weather and sun.
Hundreds of thousands of Chinese visitors came to Indonesia during the past few months – surely not all of them in good health, since the outbreak really started in late November last year.
For a country this big and this popular not to record a single case of the novel coronavirus while it was being spotted and tracked everywhere around, has always looked to be a result of incompetence rather than divine intervention.
Today, as the first ones have been identified this week, along with several past deaths only now attributed to Covid-19 the question remains – how many have not been spotted in the many weeks prior and have wandered around the country’s packed, dense, huge cities and tourist resorts? How many other people have they managed to infect in the meanwhile? And how many of these cases were misdiagnosed or simply ignored, leading to further infections that are yet to be traced?
And the scale of the risk is gigantic.
Jakarta alone is the world’s second largest city by metropolitan area population (behind Tokyo), with 34,000,000 inhabitants.
The country’s other major urban centres aren’t exactly small either, with Surabaya touching 10 million and Bandung following closely behind. These are cities with -populations greater than many countries – yet lacking sophisticated healthcare services and most certainly in ability to screen all the possible Covid-19 cases.
When the number of patients in Wuhan – the epicentre of the disease – began to rise, Chinese authorities sealed the city and the entire province off, and later proceeded to do the same with other parts of the country. Hundreds of millions of people abandoned restaurants and cinemas, and wore surgical masks both to protect themselves and each other, to restrict the spread of the virus.
In the meanwhile, as it kept landing in new countries, Indonesian authorities didn’t even acknowledge there is – or may be – a serious problem.
But ignorance isn’t always bliss and viral infections do not go away simply because you choose to turn your head away. They will still spread. And as they do they may reach a point beyond which they become impossible to put out.
Vigilance exhibited early – one of its best examples being Singapore – allows to contain the disease, isolate the confirmed cases and quarantine everybody identified as a possible contact. But it’s not really possible if you’ve been ignoring the threat for many weeks until it has grown beyond control.
Indonesia is poor, but not as poor as to be completely marginalized or have its population isolated from the world by lack of access and financial means to travel (like Africa). It is an ascending developing country, closely connected to its ASEAN neighbors as well as countries further afield, bridging Asian Far East, Oceania and Europe. It’s not a place tourists avoid but one they flock to. And a home to a quarter of a billion people, supplying millions of travelers to the world.
Jakarta’s Soekarno–Hatta International Airport is among the Top 20 busiest on the globe. With over 65 million passengers traveling through it goes head to head with international aviation hub of Singapore at Changi.
For comparison, the busiest airport in Africa, O.R. Tambo International in Johannesburg, handles little over 20 million passengers – and most of the rest don’t even come close. In fact, Indonesia’s primary tourist destination – Bali – handles over 24 million travelers per year – more than any African airport.
But it’s not only the number of passengers traveling through Indonesia that is worrying – it’s also the immense intensity with which it is connected with its neighbors.
The international route between Jakarta and Singapore is the 3rd busiest in the world, with over 27,000 flights a year. The connection to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, comes in fifth, with nearly 20,000 flights. That is 50 to 70 flights a day, every day, every year. Millions of passengers pouring in and out of the country whose health minister believes prayers are a better protection that modern technology and medicine.
Singapore to the rescue?
Perhaps some comfort can be found in that it is the little city-state of Singapore that is the region’s primary international air hub that distributes traffic around it. The wealthy island has been praised left and right for its determined, organized response to the epidemic, which – despite a number of cases reported early on – has managed to keep their incidence from exploding – unlike what we are witnessing now in South Korea, Iran, Italy, Germany or France.
As long as the screening at Changi Airport remains tight, there’s a good chance that infected passengers can be spotted and brought under quarantine before they manage to pass the disease to hundreds more.
That said, unlike with other countries – from which Singapore restricted travel quickly and prudently (China, South Korea or Iran) – similar measures will not be possible with Indonesia. With dozens of flights every single day, innumerable business links and thousands of Indonesians working in Singapore, it seems simply not possible to close the border to everybody who visited Indonesia in the previous two weeks.
And because authorities in Jakarta have been so abysmally lazy to address the threat, their failures also prevented others from responding adequately, leaving the doors wide open for the disease to spread.
Damage Is Done
Sadly, regardless of how much we scoff at Indonesian handling of the issue, most of the damage has likely already been done. Their failure to react gave the virus precious weeks it needs to spread and incubate.
The country’s strategic position between Europe, Asia and Australia, as well as its huge population and a broad diaspora, coupled with lack of competent (or swift) response, have all created highly dangerous conditions for the contagion to spread far and wide.
The crux of the problem is this – Indonesia is developed and connected well enough to expose millions in and out of the country to the virus and yet not developed enough to respond to it. Not rich enough to tackle the problem properly and not poor enough to be isolated.
Because of that we can only hope that, indeed, as it was reported earlier, the virus does not spread as quickly in hot, humid weather and that alone will slow or stop it. Unfortunately, with outbreaks in Italy and Iran (countries significantly warmer at this time of the year than many other) these assumptions have already been questioned.
Ironically, then, when it comes to Indonesia, prayers may be our best hope after all.