Medan, Indonesia – Just seven days before Indonesia’s regional elections, the elections commission announced all COVID-19 patients in isolation would have the right to vote according to a new electoral law drafted during the pandemic.
It also released a cartoon that stated two election officials and two witnesses wearing personal protective equipment would enter each COVID-19 isolation room to oversee the process.
However, on Wednesday, the commission appeared to backtrack after pressure from local hospitals and medical staff.
“The mechanism for compiling votes was coordinated with local hospitals,” Herdensi Adnin, head of the General Elections Commission for North Sumatra, told Al Jazeera.
“Meeting COVID-19 patients is not something that can be done randomly. So a doctor or medical staff can record the votes as long as they have the correct paperwork. So it is no longer random,” he added.
Fransiskus Ginting, the director of Martha Friska Hospital in the provincial capital of Medan, told Al Jazeera the hospital that handles “severe” and “critical” COVID-19 cases consulted with the local government in the week leading up to the election.
“We decided that our medical team would guide the election committee how to carry out the procedure. We hope that the procedure will be ok and there will be no infections,” he told Al Jazeera.
Several election workers Al Jazeera spoke to said they were pleased with the new policy and had been “frightened” at the prospect of having to enter COVID-19 isolation wards.
Indonesia has been criticised for going ahead with the regional elections across the country, in which more than 100 million people were eligible to vote. The regional elections on Wednesday were designed to elect governors, mayors, regents and district heads across almost 300,000 polling stations spanning 37 cities.
The world’s third-largest democracy has been the most badly affected country in Southeast Asia when it comes to COVID-19 infections, with almost 600,000 cases and almost 20,000 deaths. On election day, Indonesia recorded its highest ever daily death toll of 171 COVID-19 deaths.
There had been calls for the election to be cancelled after it was first postponed from September to December, but presidential spokesperson Fadjroel Rachman said in September that, “President Joko Widodo has asserted that the regional elections cannot wait until the pandemic is over because no country can predict the end of the pandemic.”
In Medan, Martha Friska Hospital’s director, Ginting, said his patients were, “very happy and wanted to use their right to choose their mayor and deputy-mayor”.
In Indonesia, voters use a nail to puncture the voting paper and choose their preferred candidate. All ballots and the nail were sanitised when handed back to election workers to further lower the risk of contamination.
Coordinating nurse, Danhaydy, who facilitated the voting process for the nine eligible isolated patients at Martha Friska Hospital, told Al Jazeera that once he entered their isolation rooms: “The patients chose the candidates according to their own wishes, and I recorded it for them. They did not touch the nail. The candidate they voted for is a secret between me and them.”
Election worker Harry Siregar said it was not a breach of a patient’s right to privacy, but rather an extension of doctor-patient confidentiality at an extraordinary time.
“We are going to have to do the best we can,” he added.
In the run-up to the elections, some 76 candidates contracted COVID-19 – according to data from Lapor COVID-19 – and at least four died.
On Wednesday, the elections commissioner, Ilham Saputra, said 79,000 election staff out of two million had tested positive for COVID-19 in the run-up to the vote.
In addition to the new protocols for patients in isolation, polling booths across Medan also had a range of coronavirus procedures in place.
Helty Susilo, an election official at the TPS22 polling station, said all voters had to wear plastic gloves and use hand sanitiser before and after voting.
In Indonesia, voters usually dip their pinky finger in ink to show they voted, but Susilo said this was stopped for fear of contamination from the ink bottles.
“This time we flicked the ink from a brush onto their finger,” he said.
Susilo also explained anyone registered to vote at the TPS22 polling station was allowed to – even if they appeared unwell.
“We had a special booth set up outside for any voters who have a temperature of over 37 degrees,” he told Al Jazeera, “They could vote but only in the booth and had to leave immediately after voting. They were not allowed to linger.”
Susilo added he was not scared to work at the polling booth on election day. “I just try to think positive thoughts, eat well and stay healthy,” he said. “You can get COVID-19 anywhere these days.”