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Fearing Infection, Some In Indonesia Refuse Nearby Burial Of COVID-19 Victims

A new section of a municipal cemetery in Jakarta is expanded for graves of those suspected of dying from COVID-19.
Ed Wray
Getty Images
A new section of a municipal cemetery in Jakarta is expanded for graves of those suspected of dying from COVID-19.

In Indonesia, one of the countries in Southeast Asia hardest hit by the coronavirus, some residents are refusing to allow COVID-19 dead to be buried in their communities, despite government assurances that doing so is safe.

In the capital, Jakarta, special police units have been formed to guard burial processions for COVID-19 victims, after protesters blocked streets in several cities in the world's largest Muslim-majority country to prevent the dead from being transported to cemeteries.

Two weeks ago, on the central island of Java, the family of a 38-year-old nurse who died after treating COVID-19 patients attempted to bury her alongside her father in the family village. Dozens of villagers blocked them from doing so. The family was forced to bury her in a large public cemetery in Semarang, the provincial capital.

Police detained three people in connection with the incident. The neighborhood head apologized the next day, saying he had "only voiced the will of the residents." The provincial governor also offered an apology in a video posted to his Instagram account.

"Nurses, doctors and other health workers never rejected a patient. How could we reject them, who have sacrificed their lives to save us?" Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo said.

He also told residents not to be fearful: "I'd like to say once again that the bodies of COVID-19 patients are handled in accordance with safety standards."

Muslim burials generally take place within 24 hours of a person's death, after the body is washed and wrapped in a shroud.

With the arrival of the coronavirus, this process has become more complicated. In neighboring Malaysia, another Muslim-majority nation, authorities have decided that bodies of COVID-19 patients, after being wrapped in linen, should be placed in body bags by medical personnel wearing full protective gear before burial. Washing of the body can be replaced by a symbolic cleansing with purified sand or dust over the body bag.

In Indonesia, religious authorities have said the body must be bathed but doesn't need to be undressed. Then it should be wrapped in a shroud, put in a waterproof body bag and placed in an airtight casket.

Ganjar says he's coordinating with several agencies to build what he calls "hero cemeteries" for medical personnel who've died from COVID-19. At least 25 doctors, more than a dozen nurses and at least six dentists have died since the outbreak of the pandemic, according to the Indonesian Medical Association.

Indonesia has recorded 10,551 cases of COVID-19 infection, with at least 800 dead — the highest number of fatalities in Southeast Asia.

Many doctors and independent analysts suggest these figures are low. The Jakarta Globe reported last week that a public cemetery in East Jakarta is fast running out of space to bury COVID-19 victims, with one worker telling the paper that he and his colleagues were burying up to 20 people per day.

Amid fear and misapprehension, there's also understanding and compassion.

In the Central Java village of Wonosobo, a farmer named Badaruddin recently offered — in a video widely shared on social media — a 3,000-square yard plot of land to bury COVID-19 victims, saying he was "very sad" to hear that some people, even medical personnel, were being denied burial.

"Anyone who is a corona victim who was rejected by residents can be buried in my land for free," said Badaruddin. "This is my way of showing my appreciation, my respect and my respect to my fellow human beings."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.