As COVID emergency measures start, Indonesians ‘crying for help’

Government introduces restrictions to slow coronavirus transmission in Southeast Asia’s worst-hit nation as hospitals and cemeteries fill up.

Funeral workers are overwhelmed by their workload as the coronavirus death toll rises [Jessica Washington/Al Jazeera]

Jakarta, Indonesia – From morning until midnight, Suherman and his fellow carpenters work in the heat – sawing, sanding and painting.

As emergency COVID-19 measures commence on Saturday in Indonesia’s most populous island of Java and the tourist island of Bali, many businesses are quieter than usual as millions were told to work from home – but not in this outdoor workshop in the archipelago’s capital, Jakarta.

With the COVID-19 death toll rising, there is an urgent need for coffins.

“We are in a rush,” Suherman said. “People are waiting for coffins, so we need to work fast. The families of the deceased are waiting,” he added.

“Before COVID, we did not need to work so hard. We didn’t even have targets of how many we needed to make each day. But now, we have to fulfil the demand.”

In Jakarta, on the northwest coast of Java, funeral workers are stretched to their limits. Newly constructed coffins are stacked onto trucks and dispatched to hospitals around the city.

Due to the excessive workload, Suherman earns $30 extra each month compared with before the pandemic.

“I don’t mind if my income is reduced, I just want COVID to be gone,” he said. “I feel so sorry for all these families.”

In central Jakarta, newly constructed coffins are stacked onto trucks and dispatched to hospitals around the city [Jessica Washington/Al Jazeera]

On Saturday, Indonesia registered a record-breaking daily increase of almost 28,000 COVID-19 cases, of which close to 10,000 were in Jakarta. The confirmed total death toll in the country, Southeast Asia’s worst-hit nation, has surpassed 60,000.

Experts warn that these figures are likely to be an undercount due to the country’s low rates of testing.

The health ministry said the rise in transmission was sparked by heightened mobility during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, as well as the presence of the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus, which was first detected in India.

Faced with a spiralling health crisis, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo announced on Thursday a series of coronavirus containment measures, which will be in place until at least July 20.

Under the restrictions, public sites such as shopping centres and restaurants will remain shut, all non-essential workers must work from home, and domestic travellers must show their proof of vaccination and PCR results.

“This situation has forced us to take firmer steps so together, we can block the spread of COVID-19,” Widodo said.

“I’m asking people to be calm and alert. Obey the regulations, be disciplined in following health protocols and support the government’s work.”

‘I feel all alone’

The ferocity of this current wave of cases has changed thousands of families forever – and prompted questions about how many lives could have been saved had emergency measures and stricter protocols been brought into place sooner.

Munis Runawati, 36, from Kudus, in central Java, lost both her parents within one week. She said she was shocked by how quickly their condition deteriorated.

“At first it was my mum. She got chills and then she lost her voice. We didn’t think it was COVID but then she became unresponsive,” she said.

“I feel all alone now. Now they are gone, we’re lost. We don’t know what to do next.”

Outside an oxygen store in Jakarta’s south, the crisis in the city’s hospitals is clear.

Among those in line are people whose loved ones, despite being ill and in need of treatment, were turned away from hospitals because of capacity issues.

“I need to refill this oxygen tank because my dad has difficulties breathing,” Sari Anugrah said, while queueing outside.

“He hasn’t been admitted. They kept rejecting us, even the emergency unit … it’s up to the hospital to take him or not. So, we have to take care of him at home.”

For pulmonologist Erlina Burhan, thinking about families who are desperately trying to get care for their loved ones makes her “feel like crying”.

“So many people want to be admitted and put in isolation but we do not have enough space,” said the doctor, who works at Persahabatan Hospital, one of the government’s designated COVID-19 treatment hospitals.

“Some of the staff are COVID-19 positive and they need to rest and quarantine at home. We have less staff now, but more patients. It’s hectic. It’s depressing.”

While she welcomed the new emergency measures, Erlina said the government must go further.

“It’s a bit late. But better late than never … and I would like to say, we need more than what is being offered,” she said.

The bed occupancy rate in her hospital is more than 90 percent and its intensive care unit is at full capacity.

“People I know are crying for help … asking for a bed for their relative … but I can’t help. It’s such a bad feeling,” she said.

“Even within our group of doctors, we say, we’d better not get sick because we don’t even have space in our own hospital.”

Source: Al Jazeera