But across the country, from the second largest city of Surabaya in East Java, Makassar in South Sulawesi, Bekasi in West Java to remote Maluku, more than half a dozen cases have emerged of families taking back the bodies of the dead – sometimes by force, from hospitals and ambulances – to ensure a traditional burial.
While most of the cases involve Muslim families, some people who practise other religions, including Christianity, are also objecting to the strict coronavirus burial rules that prevent them from paying their last respects in line with their beliefs.
On June 4, four sons took back their dead mother’s body from Surabaya’s Lung Hospital. In Makassar on June 7, more than a hundred family and friends of a 53-year-old dead woman forcefully took her body from Stella Maris hospital and refused to allow the body to be buried in line with COVID-19 protocols.
The most recent case, on June 26, involved hundreds of locals in Ambon City, Maluku stopping an ambulance that was taking a dead coronavirus patient to be buried. Without any protective clothing or equipment, the mob took the body to a cemetery to be buried.
Pre-coronavirus, in Indonesian Islam, the body of the deceased is taken home and bathed by close family. Water is then poured over the body, which is then wrapped in a shroud, a prayer is performed, and the body is put on display for people to pay their respects before it is taken to a cemetery – all within about 24 hours after death.
Arman Bausat, a doctor who is the director of Special Hospital Dadi in South Sulawesi, said the risks to people taking away the bodies of dead coronavirus patients was high.
“The virus doesn’t immediately die when the person dies. In the first four hours [after death] a body would be highly contagious, after eight hours the virus would still be alive. And when processing the dead, the body will be touched a lot which means the chance of it infecting those [people] are very high too. Dead bodies secrete liquids in the early stages, they need to be handled properly to prevent them from infecting people,” he said.
Arman said that some families simply didn’t care about the risks involved and simply wanted to bring their dead home. And while the medical community was trying to educate people about the risks involved, his hospital was simply unable to stop a determined group of people who wanted to take a body back.
In an incident at his hospital on June 3, dozens of family members – some with weapons – had turned up to take back the body of a dead 45-year-old man.
“They dragged one of our security guards, I told them to stand down, not to fight back. They damaged the hospital fence. We are a hospital, a health care facility, we care for patients, we are not security officers.”
Arman said that there were even rumours being spread by “provocateurs” that COVID-19 was a hoax designed to enrich doctors and nurses, and that each death guaranteed health workers a share of 300 million rupiah ($30,000).
“That’s what has been spreading in the community. There are some people with bad intentions out there. Our workers, they already face a high risk of getting infected, now they are being pressured from the outside by these malicious rumours.”
Dr Syaiful Hidayat, the Head of the COVID-19 taskforce for Slamet Martodirdjo hospital in Pamekasan, East Java, said that an ambulance from his hospital was set upon by a mob who demanded the body of a dead man being taken to be buried in line with coronavirus protocols.
“They were stopped, the [group of up to 300 people] asked for the body and our officers were asked to strip off their hazmat suits. The people there believe there is no such thing as COVID-19,” he said.
“There were people yelling to burn down the ambulance. The family had no problem, one of the family members was there to escort the body for burial. So it wasn’t the family, it was the locals…they said that the body was not bathed, not properly prepared for Muslim burial, that the people [from the hospital and the government] have turned COVID-19 into a business.”
Police in South Sulawesi, East Java and other parts of the country are investigating the incidents and suspects have been detained.
South Sulawesi police spokesman Ibrahim Tompo said 10 suspects that had been detained from three separate incidents now faced up to seven years jail for their actions.
“What they are trying to do is something very normal, to pay their last respects. But with the current pandemic, there are health protocols that need to be considered.”
James Massola is south-east Asia correspondent based in Jakarta. He was previously chief political correspondent, based in Canberra. He has been a Walkley and Quills finalist on three occasions, won a Kennedy Award for outstanding foreign correspondent and is the author of The Great Cave Rescue.
Amilia Rosa is Assistant Indonesia Correspondent.