This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.
Residents living near Bingbin Cemetery in Tangerang, Indonesia, turned away the body of a man who died of COVID-19 on March 23, citing fears that they could contract the disease from their nearby homes. The dispute grew to involve dozens of locals.
“Around 30 people gathered. They were afraid of contracting the coronavirus from the corpse. We received a chain message saying that a local landfill was designated as a burial site for coronavirus patients,” Kiki, a Tangerang local, told local media.
Tangerang Deputy Mayor Benyamin Davnie, on the other hand, told residents not to worry about contracting the virus from dead bodies. “I have informed my constituents that burning coronavirus patients is safe for the environment and will not spread to other humans,” Davnie said.
But is it really true that dead coronavirus patients cannot further spread the virus?
Researchers are still uncertain about how long the novel coronavirus can survive on a dead body, spelling uncertainty for the workers who handle them. The World Health Organization now recommends extra precautions when burying individuals killed by COVID-19.
Indonesia’s Ministry of Religion, which is in charge of policies on burial rites, is taking precaution too. In its stringent guidelines on how to bury individuals who died of COVID-19, the ministry recommends coronavirus patients not be buried within 50 metres of a drinking water source or within 500 metres of a residential area.
According to guidelines compiled by Singaporean authorities, personnel burying COVID-19 patients should have sufficient protective gear, including a single-use jumpsuit, disposable gowns, knee-high boots, shoe covers, a single-use plastic apron, and gloves.
Unfortunately, most gravediggers on the frontlines lack these supplies. In many Indonesian cities, gravediggers and doctors at hospitals designated for the treatment of COVID-19 patients are instead forced to wear plastic raincoats due to a lack of protective gear. Some of these hospitals also lack viral transport medium (containers for transporting samples for testing), disposable gowns, goggles, and thermal guns. Shortages have also been reported in the cities of Makassar, Sukabumi, Yogyakarta, and Pangkalpinang.
“There’s nothing else we can do. We must act fast to avoid any spread of the virus from corpses to living humans,” Mauluddin, a doctor from the city of Kendari, told local media.
Due to decreased production rates, healthcare workers worldwide are facing shortages of essential gear. With the number of coronavirus-related deaths at 172 in Indonesia, authorities are beginning to worry.
“We have received numerous complaints about the lack of protective gear. I must stress that 180 countries are scrambling for masks, sanitizer, everything,” said Indonesian President Joko Widodo earlier this week. In central Java and Yogyakarta, hospitals and private businesses have been urged to make their own protective gear.
Head of Indonesia’s National Healthcare Workers’ Allaince (PPNI) Hanif Fadhillah confirmed that COVID-19 has infected individuals in 20 of Indonesia’s 34 provinces, also urging the government to distribute precious resources proportionally. So far, allocation of resources has been concentrated to hard-hit areas like Jakarta and Bali.
The pandemic has turned funerals into sparsely attended occasions. In the city of Sidoarjo, gravediggers were too afraid to assist in the burial of coronavirus patients.
“I had to approach the gravediggers [who left] and tell them that we desperately needed their help, and that we would follow safe standard operational procedures. I even assured them that I would be in attendance. Praise God, they understood the situation,” Sidoarjo Deputy Regent Nur Syaifuddin wrote in a Facebook post.
Fear of contracting coronavirus from dead bodies is high in Indonesia. A family in Kolaka, Southeast Sulawesi, gained national attention when they ignored burial procedures and took home the body of a loved one who died from COVID-19 in their own car, also removing the vacuum-sealed plastic wrap placed around the body. A video of the family kissing the dead body at a crowded funeral ceremony also sparked outrage online.