Respiratory cases up but most residents shrug off bad air

Ms Gayantri, 27, and her seven-year-old daughter Keyla Sari in their house in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan. The divorcee, who also lives with her mother, has tried her best to keep the haze out of the house. The family bought a second fan and clo
Residents outside their house on the outskirts of Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, last Thursday, as thick haze fills the air over burnt peatland. The PSI in the city reached 1,800 that afternoon.ST PHOTOS: SEAH KWANG PENG
A boy playing on the road despite the air pollution in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, last Thursday.
A boy playing on the road despite the air pollution in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, last Thursday.
Ms Gayantri, 27, and her seven-year-old daughter Keyla Sari in their house in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan. The divorcee, who also lives with her mother, has tried her best to keep the haze out of the house. The family bought a second fan and clo
Ms Gayantri, 27, and her seven-year-old daughter Keyla Sari in their house in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan. The divorcee, who also lives with her mother, has tried her best to keep the haze out of the house. The family bought a second fan and closes the doors and windows when they sleep.ST PHOTOS: SEAH KWANG PENG

The air is thick with smoke that to this correspondent is unbearable to breathe in, but at an open-air Internet cafe in Central Kalimantan provincial capital Palangkaraya, eight out of every 10 of the young people who are about 20 to 30 years old are without a mask.

Sitting on wooden benches, they are intent on surfing the Internet and checking e-mail at this outdoor facility with affordable Wi-Fi connection, oblivious to the hazardous air that they are breathing in.

This was the spot my colleague, photographer Seah Kwang Peng, and I sent our photos and stories from last Thursday when the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) hit 1,800, way over the 350 mark, above which the air is considered hazardous.

The air was so heavy, it felt like liquid was seeping into my nose the moment I took off my mask. I put the mask back on quickly, so unbearable it was to breathe in the dense and acrid air. My eyes also watered the way they would not at, say, PSI 400, the reading in Sumatra when I was covering the haze there in 2013. I could also take the mask off for a minute or two then.

Yet, when the people at the Internet cafe were asked why they were not wearing a mask, a college student sitting on one of the benches who identified himself as Mr Hamdi said: "We are used to it."

Palangkaraya has been suffering from hazardous haze from the illegal burning of forests to clear land for cultivation for more than a month now, with the PSI breaching 2,000 in the fourth week of last month and hitting a record high of 2,300 for Indonesia on Sept 26.

The majority of its residents, however, have been stoic about the discomfort from the bad air and doing little to protect themselves from it, possibly because they underestimate its dangers.

"They don't know what the haze could do to their health. They may not suffer now, but later... as a long-term effect, they may do. The worst case is they could get lung cancer," Dr Theodorus Sapta Atmaja, head of human resources and public relations of the state-owned Doris Sylvanus hospital, told The Sunday Times.

To increase awareness among the people of the need to wear a mask to protect themselves against the haze, local governments throughout Central Kalimantan province have stepped up campaigns.

A huge street billboard in Palangkaraya had bold letters that read: "Warning!!! Haze could cause upper respiration infection - wear a mask, drink 2 litres of water a day, eat fruits and vegetable, reduce outdoor activity and have enough sleep."

Ms Gayantri, 27, a divorcee who lives in a 35 sq m landed house with her mother and only daughter in the Antang Kalang area of the city, has tried her best to keep the haze out of her house.

"We bought a second fan, turned both of them on and closed all the windows tight," she said. "This would help us get a good night's sleep."

But during the day, even when they are outdoors and the PSI level is hovering around 2,000, Ms Gayantri and her family do not bother to wear masks.

Not everyone is throwing caution to the wind, however.

For university lecturer Ester Sonya, wearing a mask is her new day-to-day norm, not only outdoors, but also at home when she is in the kitchen or living room. This is because the haze has permeated her house, she said.

When this correspondent spoke with the 45-year-old last Thursday at the Doris Sylvanus hospital, she was seeing a lung specialist for a haze-related problem, after dosing herself with cough medicine did not help her condition.

But Ms Ester, who has an eight-year old son, had put a strategy to work three weeks ago when the haze got uncomfortable, to protect her whole family.

"We have designated one air-conditioned bedroom in the house for daily living, sealing it by taping the windows from the inside and the door. This bedroom has become our home now. We sleep and do most of our daily activities there," she said.

It was possibly a wise move, for the number of upper respiratory cases (or locally called Ispa) in Palangkaraya has been rising steeply in the past two months.

While most Ispa cases can be treated on an outpatient basis, those with pre-existing conditions like asthma and weak lungs need to be hospitalised, said Dr Theodorus.

The number of Ispa inpatients at Doris Sylvanus was 34 last month, up from 18 in August.

Children in the age groups of one to four and five to 14 have been the most vulnerable.

Schools in the city were closed for three weeks from Sept 10 to keep the children at home. However, parents had to go to the schools to pick up their children's homework, so that they could keep up with their schoolwork.

"We make parents go to school and students stay home.

"Every Friday, morning to noon, parents are invited to pick up homework instructions at school," said Ms Masmunik Tambang, 59, a teacher at the Langkai primary school in the city centre, who has been teaching for 35 years.

Last Friday, schools were allowed to resume but were told to close again from yesterday to Tuesday as thick haze came back.

"This is the longest forced holiday period I have ever experienced (because of the haze)," said Ms Masmunik.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 04, 2015, with the headline 'Respiratory cases up but most residents shrug off bad air'. Print Edition | Subscribe