JAKARTA - A grassroots movement in one of Indonesia's worst-hit regions for Covid-19 has emerged to ease a crisis in healthcare in the country with hospitals unable to cope as patient numbers surge.
Last month, Sonjo, a WhatsApp community group in Yogyakarta, a province on Java island, tapped into their network to help the district government turn a disused hospital into an isolation facility to house Covid-19 patients with moderate to no symptoms.
While the government paid for such expenses as sterilising the Patmasari Veteran hospital in Bantul Regency and equipping the wards with some 60 beds, Sonjo volunteers helped raise funds to procure personal protective equipment such as hazmat suits and masks as well as other medical necessities.
Dr Rimawan Pradiptyo, who heads the economics department at Yogyakarta's Gadjah Mada University, said the group was formed in March last year - when the first cases were confirmed in Indonesia - to help vulnerable communities cope with the pandemic.
In the spirit of "gotong royong", or mutual cooperation, volunteers helped patients to transfer between hospitals to ensure they got the right treatment and linked up hospitals facing a shortage of protective equipment to manufacturers and suppliers.
The isolation facility, referred to as "shelter tangguh" or "resilient shelter" is the latest in a long line of self-help initiatives by the group, which has since grown to over 1,500 members spread across 14 WhatsApp chatrooms.
"It is better that the patients go to a health centre rather than stay at home. At the health centre, for sure there is a nurse or doctor to examine them and attend to their needs. If their condition worsens, they can be transferred to the hospital," Dr Rimawan told The Straits Times.
Indonesia remains the worst-hit country for Covid-19 in Southeast Asia, with cases surpassing 1.2 million and deaths topping 32,000.
While the government embarked on mass vaccinations in January, weak testing, contact tracing and health protocols have failed to curb infections which in turn have placed immense strain on hospitals and health workers.
Health Ministry data, for instance, showed a sharp spike in the number of cases in Yogyakarta, from 12,155 on Dec 31 last year to 21,825 on Jan 31, or an 80 per cent jump.
Shelters such as the one in Bantul regency have helped to plug a much-needed gap in healthcare for at-risk communities who might otherwise be overlooked.
Mr Wahyudi Anggoro Hadi, a village chief in Bantul, said the shelters made it easier to segregate the sick from the healthy, a real challenge in a close-knit society like Indonesia.
"A pandemic will not change norms overnight such as attending social gatherings and having meals together," he told The Straits Times.
Having healthcare staff to keep an eye on the patients could also make a difference between life and death, said Mr Wahyudi, whose village of Panggungharjo has reported 430 infections and 11 deaths.
"Mild symptoms could become worse at any time. Covid-19 has taught us to cooperate to overcome our limitations," he said.
For the Sonjo group, next on their to-do list is to produce a manual on video showing the proper way to handle and bury the bodies of those who have died from the virus.
Dr Rimawan said the volunteers could not have done without the support of responsive and hands-on government and community leaders.
The Bantul government, for instance, set up emergency hospitals and shelters in the early days of the pandemic, even when there was little demand for isolation beds. But the number of cases have since swelled so that many more beds are needed, especially for those with milder symptoms.
And now, the government is racing to build shelters at 75 villages to anticipate further spikes.
To this, Mr Agus Budi Raharjo, head of Bantul health office, said: "We cannot afford to be reactive, what will happen to the patients if cases were to suddenly balloon? We must anticipate the worst-case scenario."
Frontline health workers, stretched to the limit by the mounting caseload, have welcomed the strong community spirit.
Dr Tarsisius Glory, who coordinates the operations at the shelters, said: "I don't know when this pandemic will end. But my spirit is lifted whenever patients express how thankful they are that they have recovered and can go home to be with their families.
"Hearing that makes me feel like our battle is not in vain."