When Suharyanto’s pregnant wife Rina Ismawati and two of their three children fell ill last month, he initially thought it was a common cold. But with Covid-19 cases rising in Indonesia, he took them to get tested.
The whole family tested positive for Covid-19, including Suharyanto — and 43-year-old Ismawati was admitted to hospital, where she lay in bed, occasionally sending Suharyanto messages through WhatsApp. “She told me that her condition was getting worse,” Suharyanto said. “She couldn’t breathe.”
On June 22, Riski died in hospital. Suharyanto had only ever seen him in a photo. The following day, Ismawati died, too.
Suharyanto’s wife and child are just two of the devastating and growing Covid-19 toll in Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most populous country, which is fast becoming the new center of Asia’s coronavirus crisis.
With more than 2.7 million people infected and more than 70,000 dead, onlookers caution the country may not have reached its peak.
How did this happen
The country had seen a “dramatic increase in confirmed cases” after the festive holidays, Indonesia’s Health Minister, Budi Gunadi Sadikin, said earlier this month. He put the explosion in cases down to the fast-spreading Delta variant, which was first identified in India and has since spread to almost 100 countries.
Indonesia entered a lockdown on July 10, by which point the country was reporting more than 30,000 new cases each day. The government said it is “mobilizing all resources” to deal with the Covid-19 surge, including bringing in oxygen from other countries to increase the supply.
And the current numbers likely don’t capture the whole picture. More than 27% of tests come back positive, according to Johns Hopkins University figures, giving Indonesia one of the highest test positivity rates in the world. The numbers suggest that many cases still aren’t being caught.
Just a common cold
Another major barrier to controlling Indonesia’s outbreak is the flood of misinformation.
Amid all the noise, warnings about the severity of Covid-19 are being lost.
A few weeks ago, Karunia Sekar Kinanti, 32, noticed her two-month-old son Zhafran had a fever, but she assumed it was just a common cold.
Her mother had a flu and cough, but Kinanti didn’t think it was Covid because her mother still had a sense of smell. “Her symptoms didn’t seem to be Covid-19, so I was calm about responding to it,” she said. “Then Zhafran, me, and my other child got sick, too.”
Two weeks ago, as he became weaker and his breathing became more labored, she brought Zhafran to hospital, where scans showed Covid-19 had already damaged his right lung.
She remembers the doctor telling her to prepare for the worst. “You can be optimistic, but it all depends on God,” she remembers him saying.
On July 5, Kinanti’s mother died. Kinanti still doesn’t know whether her mother had Covid because she wasn’t tested. Kinanti didn’t go to her funeral — she was in hospital with her young son.
Aman B. Pulungan, the president of the Indonesian Pediatric Society, said it’s common for parents to assume their child doesn’t have Covid-19, in part because many people in Indonesia are unaware children can be infected.
Families do little to protect children from the virus, and even when they are infected, parents often think it’s a common cold. Schools were closed last year, and have been closed again as part of this latest lockdown, but Indonesian children are currently on summer holidays.
“We don’t protect our children. This is the problem,” he said.
“A more extreme type of commentary has been making its rounds on social media, questioning the legitimacy of the government’s pandemic response altogether, and even dismissing any official information about Covid-19,” they wrote.
When Kinanti and her baby Zhafran arrived at the hospital, all the intensive care unit beds were already full.
A front desk officer took pity on Zhafran and helped them get a room, and the next day, they were moved to an isolation room with other children infected with Covid-19. Zhafran was the youngest of them all, she said.
When Kinanti talked to CNN earlier this month, she said there were nine children in the hospital room with them, and many more were waiting for beds.
The outbreak and the shortage of hospital beds makes those with underlying conditions even more vulnerable. According to Pulungan, from the Indonesian Pediatric Society, many children dying of Covid-19 have underlying health conditions.
That was the case for Tantien Hermawati’s baby Baswara Catra Wijaya, who was born with heart disease.
She believes he may have been infected with Covid-19 when he was in hospital in November last year having surgery for his condition. After he caught Covid-19, she could barely look at her baby’s face — it was obvious he was in pain.
He died on December 11, 2020, before he had even reached four months old. Hermawati believes she was lucky — at least she was able to attend his funeral.
She advises other parents to be more careful and cautious than she was, and stay at home to avoid exposing children to Covid.
“It’s really sad if our children get infected — our babies can’t tell us which part of their body are hurt, and we also don’t know it. So please just stay at home and obey the health protocol.”
Indonesia’s main hope in addressing the spiraling crisis are vaccines, the country’s President Joko Widodo said Wednesday.
“Fair and equal access to vaccines must be guaranteed since we see there is still a wide gap in vaccine access throughout the country,” he said, according to Antara News.
But for the millions already affected by Covid, those vaccines will come too late.
For Kinanti and her baby Zhafran, the situation is looking up. His doctor is more optimistic about his survival, but warns that Zhafran might always have diminished lung capacity.
She says she underestimated Covid, and thought it was impossible that it could affect her child: “I was late when I reached the hospital, and I really regret it.”
Suharyanto, the father of three, lives with the guilt of not knowing if he brought Covid-19 into their home. He works as a motorcycle taxi driver in Semarang City, in central Java province; he was always coming and going — but his wife stayed at home.
“The children are already carrying on as normal. But me, I still cry on my own. I regret things but I just never imagined that this could happen,” he said. “I still can’t believe that she was gone that fast.”
Suharyanto wants people to understand that Covid is not fake news or a conspiracy — to him, it is painfully real.
“They’ve never had their family die from Covid,” he said.
Indonesia is battling a devastating Covid-19 crisis. And its peak is likely still to come