‘I can barely take a break’: Gravediggers in Jakarta race against time as deaths linked to COVID-19 rise

‘I can barely take a break’: Gravediggers in Jakarta race against time as deaths linked to COVID-19 rise

Jakarta's COVID-19 gravedigger
Jakarta has the highest COVID-19 death toll in Indonesia, which forces gravediggers in the capital's Pondok Rangon cemetery to work extra hard. (Photo courtesy of Minar)

JAKARTA: Under the blazing sun of Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, gravedigger Minar wielded his shovel and dug into the ground. 

The 54-year-old has never been so busy in his 33 years as a gravedigger at Pondok Rangon cemetery in East Jakarta.

Since Jakarta reported its first COVID-19-related death in mid-March, the number of deaths has continuously risen and gravediggers like Minar have their work cut out for them.

“My job is now very different ... I can barely take a break,” he told CNA.

“It is now very tiring because there are so many dead bodies arriving daily, so I feel tired from digging non-stop.”

(ks) gravedigger Minar
Minar (without headgear) says it usually takes up to two hours for the gravediggers in Jakarta to dig one grave. (Photo courtesy of Minar)

As of Tuesday (Apr 21), Indonesia has about 7,100 COVID-19 cases. The country has the highest fatality rate in Southeast Asia, at around 9 per cent. 

Half of the total cases were in Jakarta, with about 300 deaths.  

The provincial government has ordered for those who died from COVID-19, as well as those suspected of being infected to be buried only in two public cemeteries - one in East Jakarta where Minar works and another in West Jakarta. These are the cemeteries in the capital that still have space, said the government. 

Workers prepare a burial site for a victim of the COVID-19 coronavirus at a cemetery in Jakarta
Workers prepare a burial site for a victim of the COVID-19 coronavirus at a cemetery in Jakarta. (Photo: AFP/Bagus Saragih) 

The provincial government said more than 1,000 deceased have been buried in the city according to COVID-19 burial protocols, largely due to the fact that many coronavirus suspected patients died before their swab test results were out.

READ: Cooped up in small homes and lacking awareness, Jakarta’s urban poor find it tough amid partial lockdown

DIGGING GRAVES EVERY DAY 

There are about 80 gravediggers in the Pondok Rangon cemetery, who are paid by the Jakarta government. They are usually divided into four teams, according to Minar.

Each team is responsible for one specific task for a week, such as digging graves, cleaning up graves, mowing the lawn and cleaning sewer lines in the cemetery.

FILE PHOTO: Municipality workers carry the coffin of Ratih Purwarini, a doctor who passed away due
FILE PHOTO: Municipality workers carry the coffin of Ratih Purwarini, a doctor who passed away due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), during a funeral in Jakarta, Indonesia March 31, 2020. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan/File Photo

The teams take turns every week to complete the four main jobs. This means under normal circumstances, Minar only has to dig graves for a week per month.

But since COVID-19 broke out, Minar has been digging graves every day, even if his team was supposed to be assigned to other tasks.

READ: COVID-19 - Red tape prevents laid-off, poor Indonesians from getting promised aid

One grave takes up to two hours of digging, and nowadays Minar digs up to five graves a day.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were days when Minar did not have to dig graves at all simply because there were no deaths.

A team of four usually work on one grave, but still, it is not an easy job. 

As it is believed that the coronavirus can linger on the body after one dies, the protocol is to have the burial done as soon as possible to minimise the risk of the virus spreading.  

“I’m racing against time. Sometimes when a body arrives, the grave isn’t ready yet,” Minar said.

A worker sprays disinfectant at a graveyard during a funeral for COVID-19 victim Jakarta Indonesia
A worker sprays disinfectant at a graveyard during a funeral for a COVID-19 victim in Jakarta, Indonesia on Mar 31, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo)

“It is different now, there are no families of the deceased witnessing the process.

“Everything must be done quickly.”

No more than five people can gather around the tomb once the burial is completed and the ambulance has left. 

Minar said he is overcome with sadness every time he sees families of the deceased saying their final goodbye from far.

SUPPORTIVE FAMILY AND NEIGHBOURS

Minar starts his day at 7am and finishes work at 6pm when the sun finally disappears below the horizon.

Donned with personal protective equipment (PPE), he needs to carry the bodies out of the ambulance and bury them.

Workers carry the coffin of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) victim at the Pondok Ranggon funeral a
FILE PHOTO: Workers carry the coffin of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) victim at the Pondok Ranggon funeral area in Jakarta, Indonesia, March 30, 2020 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Muhammad Adimaja via REUTERS

“I am worried because COVID-19 is an infectious disease.

“I am actually afraid but this is my responsibility. What can I say?”

READ: 'There must not be more victims’ - Indonesian volunteers and businesses unite to produce protective gear

Wearing the PPE in the heat of Jakarta is also challenging, Minar said. 

“I feel as if I’m being burned.

“It is not comfortable. Sometimes when the ambulance arrives, I get myself ready but have to wait for another 30 minutes. It then gets really hot,” he said.

And then there are days when it rains. Regardless of the weather, the grave digging and the burial process must proceed.

The father of five is also fearful of bringing the virus back home. His family members are concerned but the least they can do is pray for him, Minar said.

READ: COVID-19 - Jakarta's low-wage workers hard hit by layoffs, forced unpaid leave

“They pray for me or say words of encouragement such as ‘Father, be careful. We hope you won’t be infected.’

“They are supportive because they understand that I am also contributing to battling COVID-19 with my job.”

Jakarta's gravedigger Minar and his colleagues
Minar (right) and his colleagues receiving lunch boxes provided by good Samaritans. (Photo: KA-KBUI 98)

The gravedigger makes it a point to shower at the cemetery before he heads home.

He said he is lucky to have neighbours who are also supportive. He has not encountered any stigma, he said.

Minar and the other gravediggers have also been receiving aid from communities who sympathise with them and give them lunch boxes and additional protective gear. Once, a charity organisation also arranged for a medical check-up for them. 

He feels blessed having a supportive network and this keeps him going.

READ: 'We are worried,' say Indonesian healthcare workers as COVID-19 takes toll on medical system

UNUSUAL QUIET IN LEAD-UP TO RAMADAN

It is a tradition for Muslims to visit their family graves a few days prior to the fasting month of Ramadan, which will start at the end of this week.

Cemeteries are usually packed with visitors paying respect to their loved ones, as well as vendors peddling food and flowers. 

But the atmosphere is entirely different this year, as no one is allowed to hold the ritual amid the partial lockdown in Jakarta.

“I have been working here for dozens of years, and it has never been this quiet.

“There are only one or two people coming. And they keep a distance from us,” he said.

READ: The 79-year-old Indonesian doctor on the frontline of COVID-19 pandemic

Usually, the visitors give Minar tips to thank him for taking care of their relatives’ tombs.

Without visitors, he has seen a dip in his income. But that does not bother him too much as he still receives a monthly salary of about 3.6 million rupiah (US$230).

“I am a bit sad because the informal workers (who work around the cemetery) have now lost their income.

“I hope this COVID-19 pandemic will soon be over. And with Ramadan approaching, we should focus on conducting worships,” he said.

Family members of a COVID-19 victim mourn during a funeral in Jakarta
Family members of a COVID-19 victim mourn during a funeral in Jakarta, Indonesia on Mar 31, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo)

Despite his workload, Minar is planning to fast during Ramadan.

“Most importantly is that I do my job sincerely, and then God’s willing it won’t be a burden.

“I just hope that we all remain healthy and this will soon end. That’s my only hope.”

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Source: CNA/ks

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