Diary from Indonesia’s Natuna: Tents, health checks and communal games in COVID-19 quarantine centre

Diary from Indonesia’s Natuna: Tents, health checks and communal games in COVID-19 quarantine centre

Indonesian returnee Wuhan
A total of 285 Indonesians were quarantined for 14 days on Natuna island. (Photo: Zakia Ayu Alvita Abidin Putri)

JAKARTA: It was the early dawn on Feb 2 but Ms Zakia Ayu Alvita Abidin Putri was fully awake, eagerly waiting with her luggage at Wuhan’s airport.

The 20-year-old Indonesian student had been anticipating her departure from Wuhan, the epicentre of the deadly COVID-19 outbreak.

With 237 others, most of whom were students, Ms Putri belonged to a group of Indonesian citizens who were about to be evacuated from Hubei province to Indonesia on a Batik Air flight.

READ: Garuda grounds aircraft after passenger on Bali-Shanghai flight tested positive for COVID-19

“The evacuation was not compulsory. But we wanted to go home given the circumstances,” she recounted to CNA on Monday (Feb 17).

The Indonesian embassy had coordinated the evacuation and the group was informed beforehand that they would need to be quarantined for 14 days upon their arrival in Indonesia.

Only when Ms Putri and her friend arrived at Wuhan’s airport were they told that the quarantine site is on the remote island of Natuna, which lies on the fringe of the South China Sea.

Even though Natuna was remote, she was familiar with the place as the Indonesian student association in Hubei has been raising funds to set up a library there.

READ: ‘Bali remains safe’, says provincial health agency after Chinese tourist tested positive for COVID-19

Zakia returnee Hubei
Zakia Ayu Alvita Abidin Putri posed in Wuhan city a day before the city was locked down. (Photo: Zakia Ayu Alvita Abidin Putri) 

The quarantine period ended last Saturday, with the evacuees flown to Jakarta, after which they returned to their home provinces.

In an interview, Ms Putri spoke about the routine in Natuna, and how the group had kept its spirits up through communal activities.


Recounting how it all started, Ms Putri, a medical student of Hubei Polytechnic University in Huangshi about 100 km southeast of Wuhan, said she was on holiday in Wuhan when it was locked down on Jan 23.

“At first we felt normal because we were embracing positive thinking like: ‘Oh, perhaps this is only for a few days,’” she said.

Indonesian Zakia in Hubei
Zakia Ayu Alvita Abidin Putri has been studying in Hubei Polytechnic University in Huangshi for four years. (Photo: Zakia Ayu Alvita Abidin Putri)

“We tried to remain calm, but from day six onwards, the news about us being locked down became frightening. It was actually not that scary but our parents were worried after seeing the news back home. 

“We then became a bit unstable (emotionally),” she added.

She and her friends started to receive more messages from home, asking about their well-being.

Discussions in the Indonesian students of Hubei group on WeChat became more intense, with some starting to panic.

When they learnt that the Indonesian embassy planned to evacuate citizens in Hubei, Ms Putri and her friends jumped at the offer.

After about six hours of flight, the group landed in Ranai, Natuna where they were brought to the quarantine centre at a military airport hangar.

READ: Indonesia deploys 4 additional warships to Natuna amid standoff with Chinese vessels


Once the evacuees arrived on Natuna, they underwent a health check.

Medical staff checked their temperature, blood pressure and looked for other signs that might indicate if one has contracted COVID-19.

If someone displayed symptoms of the disease, a more in-depth examination would have taken place, but Ms Putri said none of them showed any signs of it during the 14-day quarantine period. 

Medical officers prepare evacuated Indonesian nationals from Wuhan, China's center of the coro
Medical officers prepare evacuated Indonesian nationals from Wuhan, China's center of the coronavirus epidemic, before transferring them to the Natuna Islands military base to be quarantined, at Hang Nadim Airport in Batam, Riau Islands. (Photo: Reuters)

“Our temperature was measured daily, in the morning and late afternoon. Our blood pressure was also checked four times a day,” she revealed.

Apart from doctors, there was also mental health staff such as a psychologist and psychiatrist available for them. 

The quarantine site also had an intensive emergency unit, a special isolation room, and was fully equipped with medical facilities, noted the medical student. 

Some suffered from diarrhea during their stay in Natuna, but Ms Putri said they soon recovered after receiving medication.

Local media reported that some under quarantine had suffered from diarrhea due to contaminated water.

READ: Indonesians with travel history to Singapore will not be barred from returning home: Indonesian embassy

There were three hangars for the evacuees. Apart from the Indonesians living in Hubei province, the Batik Air crew and other officials involved in the evacuation process such as embassy staff were also quarantined on Natuna, making it 285 in all.

About twenty people shared a tent with air conditioning and a television. Each had their own bed.

Images of the quarantine site soon circulated online and there were concerns raised over whether it was safe for the evacuees to be in such close proximity. 

Local Natuna residents had also wondered if the regency was adequately equipped to accommodate them, and to deal with possible medical emergencies.  

READ: Indonesia says no need to test citizens evacuated from Wuhan for novel coronavirus as they are healthy

Ms Putri claimed she and her friends didn’t mind living in close proximity. She said this helped her bond with the others and make new friends.

“It was nice to share because I got lots of (new) friends. If we had been separated, I would have felt isolated and lonely.”

Ms Putri said the quarantine centre had everything they needed to make their stay as comfortable as possible.

It had toilets and bathrooms, a table tennis table, a karaoke machine, guitars and other entertainment facilities.

“So we kept ourselves entertained. We sang songs together. We were always happy,” she said.

Indonesia has not reported any case of COVID-19 so far.

READ: Indonesian health ministry says lab has all needed equipment to detect novel coronavirus


The communal activities during the quarantine process played an important role in keeping spirits up, said Ms Putri.

The day would start with an early dawn prayer for the Muslim evacuees. After that, they would all take part in aerobics followed by breakfast.

After a health check, it would be snack time. 

Once this routine was completed, they continued with their own activities. 

“Most of us opted to continue with our study. Some worked on their thesis, some studied online,” Ms Putri recounted.

In the afternoon, there was another aerobics session and temperature check.

“It was a lot of fun. Being together, doing sports together,” she said.

READ: Indonesia has done 'very well' in handling its nationals evacuated from Hubei, says WHO

There was also a daily counselling session with a psychologist, but Ms Putri said it was not always about pouring her heart out.

“Many times we played games. And the military staff and the doctors would take part too. The winner received snacks,” she said with a laugh. 

Indonesian Wuhan 4
A total of 285 Indonesians were quarantined for 14 days on Indonesia's Natuna island following their return from Hubei. (Photo: Indonesia's National Disaster Agency)

She reiterated that the overall experience had kept their spirits high.

“I didn’t even realise our time there was up. It was so nice being in Natuna, the air was fresh and clouds were so blue. The doctors and military staff were all very friendly,” she said.

When the time came to say goodbye, Ms Putri said she and a few others were emotional.

“We were touched because we were very well looked after. I didn’t think I would have such a good time.

“I had a great time being quarantined for 14 days, sharing sleeping tents with evacuees and playing games,” she said. 

Indonesian Wuhan 5
The majority of Indonesian evacuees are students. (Photo: Indonesia's National Disaster Agency)

She is now back in her hometown in Nunukan, North Kalimantan and is trying to catch up with her studies via online learning.

“I hope Wuhan gets back on its feet again so everything can return to normal,” she told CNA.

Source: CNA/ks(aw)