COVID-19 Pandemic

Explained: Why disaster shelters in Indonesia might pose a high COVID risk

Published : December 15, 2021 16:27 IST

Indonesians fleeting natural disasters often take shelter in makeshift facilities like this one. Photo: Aditya Irawan/NurPhoto/picture alliance

When disaster strikes in Indonesia, people are often evacuated to crowded shelters without pandemic protocols.

As a sprawling archipelago on the ring of fire, Indonesia frequently experiences strong earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. A 7.3-magnitude earthquake in the Flores Sea on December 14 sent people running from the coast in panic, although a tsunami warning was called off and damage was reported to be minor.

However, disasters in Indonesia can often be more serious. The sudden eruption of Mount Semeru in East Java earlier in December killed at least 46 people and sent hundreds to seek refuge in temporary shelters. In January 2021, more than 40,000 people were evacuated and dozens killed in South Kalimantan Province after some of the worst flooding to hit the region in a decade. That was followed by more flooding in November in nearby Central Kalimantan Province. Authorities declared a state of emergency, and some 10,000 people were displaced.

During the coronavirus pandemic, there is an increased risk of the virus spreading when people are forced to leave their homes and live cramped in makeshift evacuation centers built in schools, mosques and village halls. Emi Abriyani, the head of a disaster management agency in Kalimantan said that although accommodation has been built to separate families, many of the disaster shelters are at capacity. A local woman who spoke to DW said her family had been forced to leave their home, but that they were lucky enough to be able to stay with relatives. Neighbors who fled to crowded evacuation centers told her that few pandemic protocols were being followed.

Vaccines the key

Epidemiologists have also warned about the risk of COVID-19 transmission at crowded temporary shelters. Ideally, during the pandemic, people in temporary shelters would follow strict health protocols such as maintaining distance, wearing masks and regularly washing hands. However, disaster often happens so fast that people are not even thinking about health protocols. In these cases, having measures already in place at shelters would help. Even better would be if more people in Indonesia were to receive a vaccine.

However, Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist from Griffith University in Australia, expressed his concern as most people in Indonesia have yet to receive a full dose of any COVID-19 vaccine. According to the Ministry of Health, only half of Indonesians are fully vaccinated, and around 70 per cent have received a single dose. Although case numbers are lower following a surge in late summer, the omicron variant has recently raised concern. Budiman said the government should provide more comprehensive disaster risk mapping and promote vaccination in those disaster-prone areas. "At least 80 per cent of residents in disaster areas need to get vaccinated. Not only the elderly, but also young people," he said.

Building better shelters

Budiman added that authorities should make extra effort to outfit shelters to stop the virus from spreading during disasters. This includes adding extra fans and posting advisories regarding sharing items like clothes and utensils. It does not take too much time to prepare coronavirus-safe shelters, he said. "A proper evacuation site can be prepared in less than 24 hours. Yet, the biggest challenge in this pandemic is human resources, funds, and tools," he added.

Meanwhile, an epidemiologist from the Association of Indonesian Epidemiologists, Masdalina Pane, said she regretted the lax implementation of health protocols in evacuation shelters during the pandemic. "In the refugee camps, the risk of transmission is higher, and the risk of the virus spreading is also very fast," she told DW. Pane urged the government to provide more screenings and testing to screen people before they enter a shelter. She added that the ideal space would be three family members in a 12-square-meter (129-square-foot) room, with at least 1 meter of distance between beds. "The most important thing is good air circulation," she added.

Health Ministry spokesperson Siti Nadia Tarmizi said Indonesia's disaster management agency already has guidelines for handling refugees during the pandemic. "Keep wearing masks and get vaccinated immediately, that's the only key," she added. Suharyanto, the major general who heads the disaster management agency, said last month that the government is aware of the need to maintain hygiene regulations at disaster shelters. "Sometimes when disaster strikes, we forget to continue practicing our discipline on health protocols," he said. "If you can't maintain a minimum distance, please don't take your masks off."

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