Making coffins, giving shelter: volunteers step in as Covid overwhelms Indonesia | Global health
Every day, before 7am, volunteers gather in front of a house in Yogyakarta. Wearing masks and maintaining distance, they measure and cut panels of wood, smoothing the edges with sandpaper. For the past 11 days, the front yard has been turned into an emergency casket-making workshop. The coffins are painted white, and lined inside with plastic.
The volunteers are lecturers, security guards, artists and police officers who set aside their time to help the community, which is being ravaged by Covid. They work until nightfall.
Indonesia’s Covid outbreak has escalated rapidly over the past six weeks, driven by the more infectious Delta variant, and exacerbated by what health experts describe as a weak public health response. Its daily cases numbers – 56,757 infections on Thursday – have overtaken those of India, making it the centre of Asia’s outbreak.
In cities across Java island, hospitals are so overwhelmed that they are turning patients away. Burial workers are working until after dark to keep up with the fatalities. Almost 70,000 people have died since the pandemic began, according to official records, though this is though to be a huge underestimate.
As the crisis has worsened, a growing number of volunteer groups have assembled to fill in gaps in the government response. They offer rooms to people who have no space to isolate, run networks helping to locate oxygen tanks, build coffins and even recover the dead.
Herlambang Yudho Darmo, a photographer and an artist, never thought that, at the age of 57, he would learn how to make coffins. Now he knows by heart the length and the width of the panels, and how many millimetres thick the wood should be to make strong but still affordable caskets.
The initiative started when volunteers heard that Sardjito hospital, the largest hospital in Yogyakarta, was facing a shortage of coffins. Capung Indrawan, Herlambang’s friend, decided they should build them free, and opened his house front yard for volunteers. Now they make as many as 30 coffins a day, supported by donations from the public.
As well as delivering coffins to Sardjito hospital, they have been contacted by facilities elsewhere, including a hospital in Klaten, West Java.
“On Sunday we brought five coffins to the hospital in Klaten. They need more than that. The doctor there said usually they see 70 bodies in a month. Now just in a few days they have to prepare 70 bodies,” Herlambang said.
“The bodies of Covid-19 patients lay there for four hours waiting for the coffins to come. We don’t want that to happen,” Herlambang said, “all we want to do is to honour their deaths to appreciate the lives that they have been given.”
For Herlambang, death feels even closer since he began volunteering. It was while standing in front of the dozens of newly-made coffins that he heard his close friend in Semarang and his uncle in Jakarta had died.
“Looking at the coffins makes me imagine that it could be me in one of those one day,” he said. “But it also somehow makes me feel calmer, because I realise that when death comes then it will come, just like that.”
“Helping each other is in our DNA”
As health facilities collapse and Covid patients struggle to find medical treatments, communities have tried to support one another.
A movement called Solidarity of a Million Antigen Tests for Indonesia, which initially started last year to widen access to antigen tests, now maintains a “library” of oxygen tanks for people to borrow across Greater Jakarta.
“We want to focus on helping people who are self-isolated in their houses because that means they don’t have access to medical facilities and there is no guarantee that they could get oxygen,” Alif Iman Nurlambang, 46, the coordinator of the movement said.
There are 17 volunteers who manage social media, deliver the tanks and help patients use them.
“At first we didn’t know anything about oxygen. We learned from the staff at the oxygen depot on how to use the tanks. We recorded it and we later shared that video on our social media because we believe many families need that information, too,” Alif said.
When they start on 1 July, they had only 12 tanks of oxygen; this has since risen to 280. At least 514 people have been helped so far, but 3,200 are still on their waiting list.
Demand is so high that the team is unable to assist everyone. Alif recalls how they once received a request from a woman in Tangerang in West Java, whose father’s oxygen levels had fallen to 70%. They advised her that he should be in hospital. Reaching the family would take one hour, but they went anyway, knowing how hard it is to secure a hospital bed. Along the way, the woman sent a text to say the tank was no longer needed; it was too late.
They hear news like this every day. “We have an online meeting every night. It’s for our volunteers to share what they have experienced that day. To release their feelings and to stay sane,” Alif said. “We have to stand face-to-face with deaths every day, we want to remind ourselves that these are not just statistics, they are not just numbers, they are people just like us.”
Among the volunteers are new graduates, office employers, NGO workers and many more. Alif, who is a freelance writer, has dropped several job offers so he could focus on helping and coordinating the movement.
“Helping each other is in our DNA as Indonesians,” Alif says, “the best way to face the pandemic is by saving ourselves. But the better way than that is by saving ourselves, together.”
“I don’t have any hope for the government any more”
Volunteer groups are especially concerned about the impact of the pandemic on the poorest, who have been offered little assistance by the government. They cannot afford expensive oxygen tanks, which have rocketed in price, or to take days off work to self-isolate. Some have reported being thrown out of their rented rooms after landlords discovered they have tested positive.
In Yogyakarta, a women’s rights activist and book writer, Kalis Mardiasih, has provided rooms at a guest house, for five university students and workers from out of town who need shelters for self-isolation.
Along with her husband, she has also raised funds – 323m Indonesian rupiah (US$22,297) – for people affected by the pandemic.
“I don’t have any hope for the government any more,” she said, “we do whatever we can do to help others around us. Medical workers have done their very best to help us. This is the least we can do to help.”
Sandyawan Sumardi, an activist at the right group Ciliwung Merdeka, which fights for the rights of urban poor communities living on the banks of the Ciliwung River, has also begun fundraising to buy oxygen tanks. Before the pandemic, tanks cost Rp 600,000, but now they are incredibly hard to find.In Bandung, West Java, the price has reached up to Rp5m a tank.
Sandyawan said there are many community-led initiatives trying to ease Indonesia’s crisis, and that the government, at least, should support such work. That includes controlling the price of essential goods during pandemic such as oxygen tanks and medicines.
“Don’t say that we are under control. Government must be open and honest about our real condition. This is an emergency situation,” he said, “there is no time to deny any more, there are too many people who have already died.”