COVID-19 SPECIAL

Indonesia's first Covid-19 patients beat virus, but faced a longer battle against public backlash

(From left) Ms Ratri Anindyajati, her mother Maria Darmaningsih and younger sister Sita Tyasutami.
(From left) Ms Ratri Anindyajati, her mother Maria Darmaningsih and younger sister Sita Tyasutami.PHOTO: RATRI ANINDYAJATI/INSTAGRAM

JAKARTA - Ms Sita Tyasutami had high fever, dry cough and nausea on Feb 17. Later that week, when her mother, Ms Maria Darmaningsih, felt feverish, weak and dizzy, they both finally went to a hospital in Depok, on the outskirts of Jakarta.

Ms Sita was diagnosed with bronchopneumonia, while her mother with typhoid fever.

She requested a test for the coronavirus, but the health facility where they were treated could not do it.

When she learnt from a friend that a Japanese woman who attended the same dance events that she had in mid-February in Jakarta had tested positive for the virus in Malaysia, Ms Sita reported this to the hospital and insisted on getting tested.

She and her mother were then transferred to Jakarta's Sulianti Saroso Infectious Disease Hospital on March 1.

While Ms Sita, a professional dancer and performing arts manager, and Ms Maria, a dance professor at Jakarta Institute of Arts, were awaiting the results of their tests the next day, Indonesia President Joko Widodo broke the news to the nation about a 31-year old woman and her 64-year old mother - called Case 1 and Case 2 - who contracted the virus after contact with a Japanese national.

From a nurse, Ms Sita tried to find out if there were other patients that Mr Joko could be referring to. Learning that they were the only patients with the Covid-19 symptoms left her deeply shocked

"The news about me and my mum spread quickly through all media. The media flocked to our house. That caused a mental breakdown," Ms Sita told The Straits Times in a phone interview.

"Later, I screamed and cried a lot. What made me really sick was not the disease, but the fact that I was diagnosed through the media," she added.

Cruel stigmatisation, blaming and shaming began soon after their identities, contact numbers and home address were leaked online.

A picture of Ms Sita in a feathered Brazilian samba bikini circulated among WhatsApp groups, accompanied by rumours that she was a "rent dancer" who contracted the virus from a foreign male client. Followers of her Instagram account jumped quickly from 2,000 to 10,000.


Ms Ratri Anindyajati (left) donating blood in Jakarta for plasma therapy and research for a Covid-19 vaccine. PHOTO: RATRI ANINDYAJATI/INSTAGRAM

"Netizens cursed me and the stigma stressed me very much," said Ms Sita, whose condition worsened because of the psychological pressure.

Ms Sita's elder sister, Ms Ratri Anindyajati, an independent arts producer, who later joined her family in isolation at the hospital after also testing positive for the virus, said: "It's related to gender bias in our society. We're women and we are connected to the dance scene and industry. The patriarchs and conservatives see us as an easy target."

 
 

The 33-year-old, who is based in Vienna, had arrived in Indonesia in mid-February for a holiday.

"Maybe if we were men, that would not happen," Ms Ratri added.

Ms Maria, while struggling with her own stress, tried to sooth Ms Sita and encouraged her to ignore thousands of incoming messages on her phone and social media accounts.

"I once yelled at her, 'Stop crying. You must focus on increasing your immunity. You are not like what the people say,'" said the mother of three, who was awarded France's Chevalier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2018 for her longstanding dedication to dance.

Ms Ratri, known as Case 3, had the mildest symptoms. She tried to cheer sister and mother up, asking them to put on make-up and post positive messages on social media to counter negative comments about their illness.

Ms Sita sang Spanish songs and did some light exercises, as did Ms Ratri.

Ms Maria, who fainted a few times while in isolation, performed Balinese dances and painted to calm herself  while listening to music by Erik Satie and Chopin soon after she regained strength in the second week of her isolation.

The sisters were discharged from the hospital on March 13, and their mother three days later.

Looking fresh and graceful in beautiful traditional kebaya blouses, mother and daughters then appeared on TV with Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto.

This triggered another public backlash, which they described as a "second wave of hate speech".

Ms Sita woke up the next day to  hundreds of negative comments on her social media and even death threats. Some of old pictures of her in sexy dance costumes were dug up and circulated.

"They called me a whore. They called me a dancer paid to play a coronavirus soap opera," said Ms Sita. "Some of them hoped that we 'coronavirus artists' would die. Many others said we could not have recovered from Covid-19 because we never prayed."

 
 

She added: "They also said they know my address and they will make sure that I die."

Ms Ratri received similarly angry messages. "There were people who didn't believe that we were really sick, and said we were a set-up and the government's minions. There were also people who blamed us for their not being able to be with their family or forcing their wedding to be cancelled."

The government had called for Indonesians to apply social distancing measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus in the vast archipelago in mid-March and advised people to work, study and worship at home. Jakarta introduced tougher distancing measures on April 10, which saw the restriction of social, cultural and religious activities.

For their suffering and distress, the trio have gained new resilience and purpose.

Ms Sita, who is pursuing a master's degree in business administration, has set up an online dance course platform for fellow dancers affected by Covid-19, and spoke at the launch of government-backed counselling services late last month about her trauma.

Ms Ratri has donated her blood for convalescent plasma therapy and research on vaccines to help fight the disease that has killed over 1,000 of her countrymen and infected more than 16,000.

 
 
 

Both also separately raised funds to buy personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical workers.

Ms Maria, along with her two daughters, has also collected funds to provide care packages for medical staff.

"When it was announced, I thought it would be the end of my life. Everything important to me - career, beauty, wealth - suddenly didn't matter any more," she said. "I feel like I am now given a second chance in my life, and I really want to always share (with others)."