Indonesians soak up the rays to battle virus

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by Safrin Labatu

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 press 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 5,000-kilometre- (3,100-mile-) 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. (AFP)

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