Tech-savvy Indonesians go off-grid to help to remote villages fight virus

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Relawan Merahb Putih handed over their assistance to officials in the Duma village of North Maluku regency during a campaign to spread awareness of the pandemic. (Photo credit: Relawan Merah Putih/Komunitas Manyawa)
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Microbiologist and volunteer adviser Jubhar Mangimbulude explains about the coronavirus to villagers during the awareness campaign. (Photo credit: Relawan Merah Putih/Komunitas Manyawa)
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Microbiologist and volunteer adviser Jubhar Mangimbulude explains about the coronavirus to villagers during the awareness campaign. (Photo credit: Relawan Merah Putih/Komunitas Manyawa)
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Microbiologist and volunteer adviser Jubhar Mangimbulude explains about the coronavirus to villagers during the awareness campaign. (Photo credit: Relawan Merah Putih/Komunitas Manyawa)
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Updated 04 July 2020

Tech-savvy Indonesians go off-grid to help to remote villages fight virus

  • Young volunteers tackle tough terrain, pandemic myths in isolated northern region

JAKARTA: A group of tech-savvy young locals in Indonesia’s northern North Halmahera regency is spreading awareness about the dangers of COVID-19 in remote corners of the archipelago at a time when bureaucracy has impeded a rapid response to the pandemic.

The Relawan Merah Putih, or Red and White Volunteers, includes a multimedia expert, university students, lecturers, civil servants and a web developer in Tobelo, the main city of North Halmahera in North Maluku province, about 2,500 km from the capital Jakarta.

The city is located on Halmahera island, part of the Maluku Islands, Indonesia’s fabled Spice Islands on the northeastern part of the sprawling archipelago.

Stevie Recaldo Karimang, a 28-year-old freelance photographer and videographer, told Arab News that he set up the group after social restrictions introduced to counter the pandemic put him out of business. 

He quickly developed a website on the pandemic and created online flyers and audiovisual materials that he and 31 other volunteers distributed on social media platforms and messaging apps to educate the public about the pandemic soon after the first cases in Indonesia were confirmed in Jakarta in early March.

“We translated the information we took from the national COVID-19 task force into the market language spoken here, which is a mixture of Indonesian and the local dialect, to make it more understandable for the locals,” Karimang said.

The group also used a drone to issue public warnings against mass gatherings.

“The drone helped to remind people not to form a crowd when social restrictions were enforced. We attached a flashlight to the device to catch the crowd’s attention, and we were able to dismiss such gatherings.”

But the volunteers shifted their efforts to rural areas after the first coronavirus case in North Maluku province was confirmed on March 23.

Jubhar Mangimbulude, a microbiology expert at Halmahera University and the group’s adviser, said the team had visited 30 isolated villages out of 196 townships in the regency, which is home to 161 million people.

“We reached one village after hours of driving over rough terrain. We have to use four-wheel-drive vehicles because along the way we may have to cross a river where the bridge is damaged,” he told Arab News.

Mangimbulude said that many villagers were unaware of the pandemic and only knew from TV that a dangerous virus was spreading quickly and infecting people. He was glad to find that no COVID-19 cases had been detected among the villagers.

But he acknowledged that misinformation was rife and said that he had to debunk myths about “how alcohol could be used to prevent the disease.”

“The villagers heard that the virus can be killed with heat in one’s body, and since drinking alcohol can warm the body, they encouraged their children and elders to drink a local alcoholic beverage made of fermented sugar palm fruit,” Mangimbulude said.

Fellow volunteer Oscar Berthomene, a local civil servant, said that the group was able to move faster than the regency administration whose bureaucracy slowed down the response to the pandemic.

“I have support from my supervisor, and we were able to help their activities with cars to allow them to move around,” he told Arab News.

The regency has about 18 percent of the 953 cases in the province, which make up about 1.5 percent of the national total of 62,142 as of Saturday.


Russia warns Belarus will pay price for contractors’ arrests

Updated 05 August 2020

Russia warns Belarus will pay price for contractors’ arrests

  • Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, said that the Belarusian leadership has turned bilateral ties into “small change in the election campaign”
  • Medvedev described the arrested contractors as part of a “simple political technology — to create an enemy image and to achieve a political result using that enemy image”

MOSCOW: Russia’s security chief described the arrest of 33 Russian private military contractors in Belarus as a presidential campaign stunt and warned Wednesday that it would have grave consequences for ties between the two neighbors and allies.
Authorities arrested the Russian contractors outside the capital of Minsk last week on charges of planning to stage mass riots, amid an upsurge of opposition protests ahead of the Sunday election — in which Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is seeking a sixth term.
Russia has demanded the release of the contractors for a private firm, saying they only were in Belarus because they missed a connecting flight to another country. The government in Minsk has further irked Moscow by raising the possibility that some of the contractors could be handed over to Ukraine, which wants them on charges of fighting alongside Russia-backed separatists.
Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, sharply raised the stakes in the dispute Wednesday, saying that the Belarusian leadership has turned bilateral ties into “small change in the election campaign.”
Without mentioning Lukashenko by name, Medvedev described the arrested contractors as part of a “simple political technology — to create an enemy image and to achieve a political result using that enemy image.”
“It’s not only offensive, it’s very sad,” said Medvedev, who served as Russia’s president in 2008-2012 and then as prime minister for the next eight years, before becoming No. 2 in the Security Council chaired by President Vladimir Putin. “And it will entail sad consequences, too.”
Throughout his 26 years in office, the authoritarian Lukashenko has relied on Russian subsidies and loans to shore up his nation’s Soviet-style economy but fiercely resisted Moscow’s push for control over Belarus’s economic assets.
The Kremlin turned the heat up on the Belarusian president earlier this year by withdrawing some of the subsidies and warning the government it would have to accept closer economic and political integration to continue receiving Russian energy at a discount.
Lukashenko denounced Moscow’s position as part of Russia’s alleged efforts to deprive Belarus of its independence.
The 65-year-old president alleged in a state-of-the-nation address on Tuesday that another group of “militants” had been sent to southern Belarus, but gave no details. He warned Moscow against trying to fuel tensions in his country, saying that the instability could spread to Russia.
In a move certain to anger the Kremlin even more, Lukashenko had a phone call Wednesday with the president of Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy asked for Belarus to hand over 28 of the arrested Russians so they can be prosecuted for allegedly fighting alongside Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Belarusian authorities claimed the arrested contractors worked for the Wagner company. The private military firm is linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman who was indicted in the United States for meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.
Wagner has allegedly deployed hundreds of military contractors to eastern Ukraine, Syria and Libya.