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In Indonesia, fake virus cures driven by those who need to know better

First, Indonesia’s agriculture minister promoted wearing a necklace containing a eucalyptus medicine to cure the coronavirus. Not to be outdone, the governor of Bali, a popular tourist island, pushed back on his medicine: inhaling steam from boiled peas, a traditional alcohol made from coconut.

The so-called self-styled influencers and experts have also pushed their fake cures and misinformation on Indonesian social media, including a widespread rumor that popular infrared thermometer guns cause brain damage.

As Indonesia loses steadily to the pandemic, the government has struggled to deliver a consistent, science-based message about the coronavirus and the disease it causes, Covid-1


As of Friday, Indonesia had reported more than 108,000 cases and more than 5,130 deaths, surpassing China in both categories.

However, even in hard-hit provinces, about 70 percent of people go unmasked and ignore requests for social distancing, according to the government, often gathering in shops and markets and hanging out in crowded cafes and restaurants.

Indonesia is not the only country fighting disinformation or whose leaders have promoted safeguards. The World Health Organization has described fake dangerous information everywhere as “infodemic.”

In Kenya, the governor of Nairobi has pushed cognac as a miracle cure. President Trump has continued to promote hydroxycholine, a drug used to treat malaria, as a coronavirus drug despite medical evidence to the contrary. He has even suggested that an injection inside the human body with a disinfectant like bleach could help fight the virus.

But Indonesia is unique because of its vast population, vast geography on thousands of islands and mix of cultural identities. It would be difficult enough for the government to implement a clear and unified plan to fight the virus, but matters have been made worse by the promotion of conflicting and often dangerous information.

The country’s president, Joko Widodo, had initially minimized the pandemic and delivered various messages. He admitted in March that he had deceived the public about the virus to prevent a panic. After that, he was slow to close businesses and schools and restrict travel, but was quick to lift restrictions even as cases continued to rise.

In May, he said Indonesia must learn to live with the virus. However, a month later, he threatened to fire cabinet ministers for not doing more to bring the pandemic under control.

This month, he called for a national campaign to promote better discipline in social distancing, clothing masking and hand washing.

In the absence of a unified message from the national government, local officials and opportunists have filled the gap.

One official who has promoted a controversial drug is Agriculture Minister Syahrul Yasin Limpo. He told reporters this month that a ministry lab had developed a medicine made from eucalyptus, that when worn on a necklace could kill 80 percent of virus particles in half an hour.

“Of the 700 species of eucalyptus, our laboratory test results showed that one species could kill the crown,” he said. “We are safe. We will produce it next month.”

His claim was quickly rejected by health experts, including the head of the laboratory that developed the aromatic drug, which he said was ineffective against the coronavirus. But that did not stop others from promoting it.

A popular singer, Iis Dahlia, met Mr. Joko as he sought to recruit celebrities to help with his health campaign. Shortly afterwards, she informed her 12 million followers on Instagram that she was proud to carry the amulet.

“This eucalyptus necklace,” she said, “makes me feel safe and protected from the virus.”

In Bali, the governor, I Wayan Koster, has promoted a local treatment: inhaling boiled vapor steam, a traditional alcoholic beverage. To stay on trend, he also recommends adding a dash of eucalyptus oil.

Governor, who has a doctorate. in education and described himself as a “former scholar,” he told a news conference last week that nearly 80 percent of those who inhaled concussions tested negative sooner than expected.

The treatment has not undergone scientific testing, but he said he hoped Bali could patent and produce it.

Senior government spokesman for the coronavirus, Wiku Adisasmito, urged the public to follow health guidelines and not rely on superstitions and half-baked treatments, even when they stem from public officials and celebrities.

“In emergencies, we all need real, scientifically based, true facts to bring us hope, calm and clarity,” he said. Adisasmito, a professor of health policy at the University of Indonesia.

Yusuf Kalla, a former vice president who now heads the Indonesian Red Cross, said the country got off to a slow start in fighting the pandemic in part because health minister Terawan Agus Putranto downplayed its harshness.

“Until March, Minister Terawan was like Trump, saying, ‘Oh, this is just a simple flu,'” he said. Kalla. “But now, Minister Terawan is very realistic. Ministers and governors are trying to reach solutions in an uncertain situation. Trial is trial and error.”

Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, and some citizens and officials have relied on their faith to promote healing and guide their understanding of the disease.

On the island of Lombok, a senior official suggested that the niqabs, loosely dressed Islam by Islam women, were just as effective in preventing the spread of the virus as medical face masks.

“The advantage of the niqab is easier in breathing,” Suhaili Fadhil Thohir, Lombok Center Regent, explained in an interview.

However, the Covid task force for the province, West Nusa Tenggara, continues to call for face masks, said Artanto, a police spokesman and member of the workforce.

“The regent still wears a mask, not a niqab,” said Mr. Artanto, who like many Indonesians uses a name. “We continue to educate people to wear a mask.”

For many Muslims, the Covid-19 burial protocol of wrapping the body tightly in plastic and burying it in a designated cemetery has been difficult to accept. According to tradition, members of the Muslim family wash the body of the deceased and wrap it in funeral clothes.

Authorities say there have been numerous cases across the country of families rejecting doctors’ warnings and taking Covid-positive bodies home for burial.

In Mataram, the main town of Lombok, relatives of a woman who died in a motorcycle accident this month refused to believe doctors who said she had tested positive.

About 100 men entered Mataram government hospital to search for the body. Officers tried to explain the importance of burial protocols. But they were badly numbered, and the men took the body, put it in a taxi, and drove it away.

“It happens all over Indonesia,” he said. Artanto. “Their understanding as people living in the countryside is different from that of us living in the city.”

Mr Adisasmito said Islamic burial traditions were deeply rooted, and that it was difficult for people to accept that they needed to change. He likened it to Americans refusing to wear masks because it hinders “their pre-pandemic freedom, habits and way of life”.

“We live in a diverse world,” he said, “and different communities have distinctive values ​​that they hold.”

Muktita Suhartono and Dera Menra Sijabat contributed to the report.

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