INDONESIA AND COVID-19: A YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY?

STUART MULJADI WRITES — Ever since ​Trump publicly announced to the world back in March that COVID-19 will vanish by April due to “warmer weather,” researchers, data analysts and ‘self- proclaimed’ experts have been trying to answer the question: Does warmer weather halt the spread and development of COVID-19?

Weather is an important factor in dictating the survival and behavior of a virus. Fundamentally, the colder the environment the easier it is for the virus to thrive, and the warmer the environment the more difficult it can be. Take the flu, for example. According to ​Qasim Bukhari, a computational scientist at M.I.T.: “Wherever the temperatures were colder, the number of cases started increasing quickly (wherever it’s warmer vice versa).”​ But what’s the actual data supporting this claim?

A possible way to look at it is through the lens of Southeast Asia, a part of the world where the climate is usually hot and humid. Specifically, Indonesia seems to be fighting COVID-19 ‘fairly’ well.  For a country consisting of 260 million people, as of ​April 24 it has had only 7,775 confirmed cases, 960 recovered cases, and 647 deaths.​ Suspicion arises, though, because this data alone seems too good to be true.

From a containment perspective, Indonesia should have more cases, less recoveries and more deaths than countries like the US and UK. Why? Because Indonesia is a developing nation which lacks basic infrastructure, sufficient hospital capacity and universal healthcare to confronted the pandemic, which a majority of developed countries have. This is where the talk about weather comes in.

According to the ​BMKG, an Indonesian government body that specializes in Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics, ​“…high temperatures and humidity of Indonesia can, in fact, help curb the spread of COVID-19.”​  In addition, another fairly new study conducted by the NIH (National Institute of Health) found ​“….​that higher temperatures may render the virus less potent and ultimately inactive, which may explain why countries with consistently warmer climates, such as Indonesia, have reported fewer COVID-19 cases than temperate regions where temperatures vary between 5 to 11 degrees Celsius and 47 to 79 percent humidity …” The list of sources that pertains to this point that ‘warmer weather will indeed halt COVID-19’ is seemingly endless. One​ study conducted by a team from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, finds that COVID-19 may be at its most active at a particular temperature. With many studies claiming that the weather is a factor in stopping COVID-19, what’s worrying is the inconsistency of the data and hard evidence to reaffirm it.

On the other hand, perhaps warmer weather has no effect on COVID-19. According to ​a separate study conducted by a group of researchers, including epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, ​“sustained transmission and rapid growth of cases are possible over a range of humidity conditions ranging from cold and dry provinces in China.​” So why does the Indonesian government support the opposite? One possible reason, provided by Asia Times, is that ​“Claims that the climate may be a mitigating factor leads irrevocably to the suspicion that the government is trying to find ways to cover up the true measure of the situation.”

This may well prove true with regard to Indonesia. Because if places like Indonesia were truly more ‘suitable’ environments for fighting COVID-19, why do neighboring city-states such as Singapore, a highly developed nation with a climate similar to Indonesia’s, have more cases and deaths?

Maybe the Indonesian government is not as transparent as it claims.  Whether  to protect political or financial/economic interests, nobody will truly know except those in charge. In fact, since last month, ​Indonesia’s Health Minister ​Terawan Agus Putranto ​has been trying to evade the press. He even made “jokes” about the epidemic, with hundreds of millions of lives at stake. Maybe if the minister focused more on distributing testing kits and securing additional room/space for potential patients as opposed to thinking up punchlines, Indonesia would have been more prepared and informed regarding  the true scope and impact of COVID-19 on its own soil.

To put it bluntly, the answer to the original question — does climate affect COVID-19 — is most likely no. Weather is not going to kill or halt COVID-19 escalation anytime soon. A potential vaccine and social distancing will, so long as we remain quarantined.  At least that’s something in our control, unlike the weather. So for those reading this, stay home, stay safe and eat well. Because that’s probably as good as it will get for the time being.

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