Sunshine alone is not enough to keep Covid-19 at bay
Indonesians are pinning their hopes on sunbathing being able to ward off coronavirus
Jakarta — From shirtless soldiers to teens suntanning on their parents’ driveways, Indonesians are soaking up rays like never before in the hope that plentiful sunshine will ward off coronavirus.
The rush to take up a practice usually associated with Bali-bound foreigners has been driven by unfounded claims on social media that sunlight — and the vitamin D it supplies — can slow or kill the virus.
That hope got a boost last week when a senior US official said new research showed sunlight quickly destroys the virus. The study has yet to be evaluated independently, but US President Donald Trump spoke about it enthusiastically during a media conference.
“I always avoided the sun before because I didn't want to get tanned,” said Theresia Rikke Astria, a 27-year-old housewife in Indonesia's cultural capital Yogyakarta.
“But I'm hoping this will strengthen my immune system,” she added.
Medics have their doubts, but say a 15-minute burst of morning sunshine can be good for you.
“Exposing the body to direct sunlight is good to get vitamin D, not to directly prevent the disease,” said Dr Dirga Sakti Rambe at Jakarta's OMNI Pulomas Hospital.
Vitamin D, which comes from fish, eggs, milk and sunlight exposure, is important in maintaining a healthy immune system, he said, but added: “Sunbathing does not kill the virus that causes Covid-19.”
Whatever the science, one thing is for sure: there is no shortage of sunshine in the tropical 5,000km-long Southeast Asian archipelago. The rush outdoors has led to an Indonesian government warning about the dangers of skin cancer, and calls for novice sun-seekers to slap on protection.
It was a rare caution in a place where sunbathing is not practised widely and beauty product commercials extol the virtues of fair skin.
Across Asia, pale skin has long been associated with a higher social class and skin-lightening products are big sellers.
Muslim majority Indonesia's relatively conservative dress codes — especially for women — mean skimpy swimwear isn't a feature of the new craze.
‘Asian skin tone’
But the pandemic has made a convert of Rio Zikrizal, even if he struggles with the idea of soaking his shirtless torso in the sun.
“In normal times I'd be reluctant to sunbathe,” the Jakarta resident said.
“I've got an Asian skin tone which gets dark easily so I often use products to make my skin lighter.”
Nabillah Ayu, who lives on the outskirts of the capital Jakarta, starts her newly adopted sunbathing routine around 10am — when she used to be in the office — in the hopes of avoiding the deadly respiratory disease.
“Sunlight can't directly kill coronavirus, but it can boost the immune system and stop you from getting it,” the 22-year-old said.
Bare-chested suntan sessions have been incorporated into morning exercise routines for some military and police units.
And in major cities, residents are flocking from neighbourhoods crammed with narrow, dark alleyways to open areas — including commuter train tracks — where they can catch some unobstructed rays.
It is a motley mix of women in head-covering hijabs with rolled up sleeves and pants, shirtless male teens, and pensioners all clamouring for a bit of sunshine as the odd train zips by.
“I've just started sunbathing regularly since the pandemic hit,” Alfian, who goes by one name, told AFP near train tracks in Tangerang on the edge of Jakarta.
“Afterwards I take a shower and my body feels fitter.”
Pensioner Wadianto Wadito, who suffers from heart disease and diabetes, figures he can use all the help he can get.
“I'm already taking a lot of medicines anyway, so now I'm sunbathing to get all my vitamins without taking more pills,” the 65-year-old said.