JAKARTA: Dwi Sujanti Nugraheni has worked as a volunteer in disaster relief efforts for several years, including in 2010 when she helped thousands of residents displaced by the eruption of Indonesia’s most active volcano, Mount Merapi.
However, the 45-year-old documentary filmmaker said that she has dealt with the “hardest” volunteering work since July when she turned her focus to helping anti-COVID-19 efforts, joining a group of residents to make and donate coffins for overwhelmed hospitals in Yogyakarta, a special province in central Java.
The group ramped up its efforts after the pandemic began to take its toll on the special region, where a centuries-old sultanate still rules with the sultan serving as governor.
“This is the hardest volunteer work I’ve ever done,” Nugraheni, whose group has made 500 coffins so far, told Arab News.
“I never thought I would volunteer to make coffins. We are producing coffins to respond to the shortage, but we are not looking forward to seeing them used. We don’t expect people to die from the outbreak, but it is the reality that many people died because of the virus,” she said.
Nugraheni said that the project began when a group of friends, led by Capung Indrawan, decided to act following a surge in COVID-19 deaths and a shortage of coffins. Prices for coffins had also skyrocketed due to the sudden spike in demand.
“I came to Capung’s workshop with no carpentry skills at all, but I just wanted to do something to contribute. So I was learning by doing — either painting, sanding, assembling, lining the coffins with plastics or moving them to the warehouse, from where they would be distributed,” Nugraheni said.
Muslims are buried without coffins as per Islamic practices, but Indonesia’s COVID-19 protocols require a corpse infected with COVID-19 to be buried in a coffin in order to prevent virus transmission.
Yogyakarta, and the rest of the provinces in Indonesia’s densely populated island of Java — where half of the country’s 270 million people live — have been under a strict stay-at-home order since early July, when infections soared amid an outbreak of the delta variant.
The situation in Indonesia has made it the new center of the global pandemic. COVID-19-related deaths in the country surpassed 100,000 on Aug. 4, and health authorities have recorded more than 1,000 daily new deaths in recent weeks.
The grim situation in Yogyakarta became even more apparent amid a constant stream of ambulances either carrying the dead for burial or rushing patients to hospital while passing by the coffin making workshop, located in one of the city’s main thoroughfares.
Nugraheni said that on a typical working day — from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. — volunteers could count up to 30 ambulances passing by and “eventually identify whether they are transporting a patient or a corpse just from the direction it was going or by the entourage that followed.
“I kept praying every time an ambulance with a patient passed by that whoever was in it would never get to use the coffins we were making,” she added.
Nugraheni recalled one particular day when she felt “really distressed by the situation so went home early, only to get even more stressed out” when she ran into a convoy of oxygen trucks with police escorts in tow speeding through the empty streets of Yogyakarta.
The convoy was another dreadful reminder of how devastating situation was, when more than 30 patients died at Dr. Sardjito General Hospital in Yogyakarta over a weekend in July amid a shortage in oxygen supplies.
Indrawan, who transformed his outdoor gear workshop to produce coffins, said that the hospital, which serves as the main referral facility to treat COVID-19 patients in Yogyakarta, is one of the main beneficiaries of the initiative and receives 30 to 40 coffins per day.
“There was a day when I delivered 23 coffins to the hospital and they were all used immediately. There were still other corpses that had to wait for more coffin deliveries,” Nugraheni said.
Indrawan said that the coffin-making initiative involves sharing resources and materials among friends without ever charging for products.
“We just asked the beneficiaries to exchange the coffins with plywood as the material to make the coffins so that we could keep producing. But in just three days, people started to donate money,” he said.
The group normally produces up to 50 coffins a day based on “an efficient and affordable method” to cater to the soaring demand.
“There was a day when we produced 70 coffins. That was our record production,” Indrawan said, before narrating a “bewildering moment” when he discovered that one of his university professors who had died of COVID-19 was buried in one of the coffins they made.
The initiative has filled a niche among numerous other community-driven pandemic responses, such as establishing community shelters for self-isolation or offering free meal distribution for people in home isolation.
Besides donating to hospitals, the group has also sent coffins to communities where people died at home while in self-isolation after hospitals could not accommodate them.
“I got in touch with Indrawan when four residents in our village died during self-isolation at home on the same day. We had been looking everywhere for coffins, and the available ones were really expensive,” Rakhmawati Wijayaningrum, the village chief of Wirokerten village in Yogyakarta’s Bantul district, told Arab News.
She recalled a day when they shopped for coffins and were quoted with a price of 1.5 million to 3.5 million Indonesian rupiahs ($104-$243) for a single casket. “I also got a quote for 750,000 rupiahs for a coffin, but it was on a waiting list and we could not wait,” she said.
The village has received 13 coffins from Indrawan’s initiative. At least 980 villagers have been infected by the virus.
“This is an absurd initiative, I don’t feel like this is something to be proud of, but we just have to do it to help those who died because of this virus,” Indrawan said.