JAKARTA, Indonesia — There’s never been a more dangerous time to work as an EMT in Indonesia. Front line medical workers like Pungki Stephani, an EMT with the country’s only city-run ambulance division, are putting their lives on the line in the fight against Indonesia’s still raging pandemic.
“If you ask me whether or not I’m afraid, of course I am,” Stephani told VICE News. “I was so scared, I even considered refusing the request [to join the COVID-19 division]. But my name was already on the list. So, at first, I did it reluctantly.”
There’s a reason for Stephani to be uneasy. Nationwide, doctors, nurses, and other medical workers are dying at an alarming rate. The Indonesian Doctors Association (IDI) estimated that six out of every 100 deaths were medical workers, but in a country where COVID-19 has become heavily stigmatized and data is often inaccurate or not publically available, that figure might only be a small fraction of the total problem.
“Every time I read the news and see that a nurse died of COVID-19, I think to myself, ‘Oh my God, another nurse died? Who is going to be next?’” Stephani said. “Every time I don’t feel well, I always think about whether it’s a symptom of COVID or not… if I was exposed one day and I went home and I infected everyone, I don’t think I could forgive myself.”
The COVID-19 crisis in Indonesia is following a similar path as other countries that have failed to get the pandemic under control, like the United States. For months, Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world, denied it had any cases. Some of the country’s top government officials downplayed the risk while also floating unscientific cures—daily prayers, a local rice dish, and an “antivirus necklace” to name a few.
The virus spread unchecked for weeks before the government partially locked down the capital, Jakarta. Then, after 12 weeks of partially enforcing what it called “extreme social distancing measures,” officials reopened the city. The pandemic has only gotten worse, rising from an average of 600-700 daily cases during the lockdowns to a record high of 2,657 in a single day a month after its end.
In Jakarta, the epicenter of the crisis, a single EMT division with only five ambulances is responsible for transporting COVID-19 positive patients to specialized hospitals and quarantine wards. Hospitals, according to experts, have struggled to keep up.
“In some instances, we pick up patients from their homes, we bring them to the hospital, and the hospital is already full,” Iwan Kurniawan, the head of the ambulance division, explained to VICE News.
And while Jakarta’s ambulance division itself has historically been underfunded and overworked, this new pandemic is pushing the department—and EMTs like Stephanii—to the limit.
“Because of our limited [number of] ambulances and small staff, we can only treat a maximum of 15 patients per day,” she said. “Looking at these conditions, I can say that we’re definitely overwhelmed. But if not us, then who else?”