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Gravediggers toil as Jakarta prepares third COVID cemetery

Labor rallies and local elections add to fears over Indonesia's dire death toll

A Jakarta cemetery worker prepares a new grave in April.   © Reuters

JAKARTA -- Muhaemin looked on as a dozen men dug fresh graves and ambulances brought yet more bodies to the vast Pondok Ranggon cemetery he supervises in eastern Jakarta.

The gravediggers worked quickly last week as heavy rain turned the red soil into mud. The dead had to be buried immediately, in line with protocol for people who die of COVID-19 or are suspected of having fallen to the virus.

Muhaemin said 933 people were buried according to the coronavirus rules at Pondok Ranggon in September -- a monthly record. As many as 46 were interred there on one day late in the month.

"When we began preparing this site in mid-March, we thought the pandemic would end ... in April," he told Nikkei Asia. "But it turns out that because of a lack of awareness from everyone, the pandemic is going on so long and keeps spreading everywhere."

Around 3,500 confirmed or suspected coronavirus victims have been laid to rest at Pondok Ranggon -- about half of the total buried in line with COVID-19 protocol in the Indonesian capital. The official figure for confirmed coronavirus fatalities in Jakarta stood at 1,802 as of Oct. 6, second to East Java Province -- but the city's infection rate is the highest on the archipelago.

Muhaemin said a 1.6-hectare space in the cemetery reserved for COVID-19 victims since March is predicted to be filled by the end of this month, adding that the Jakarta government is preparing a 2-hectare site in the north of the city to become a third COVID-19 cemetery.

Coronavirus deaths and infections have surged in Indonesia since August. The daily average of more than 4,000 cases and 100 deaths prompted the Jakarta governor to reinstate large-scale mobility restrictions on Sept. 14.

Indonesia has reported a total of 311,176 infections and 11,374 deaths. The number of cases is the second-highest in Southeast Asia, after the Philippines, but the death toll is double that of its neighbor.

While cases and deaths slightly declined in the first week of October, fears remain over the plan to lift the remaining restrictions in Jakarta on Saturday -- unless the governor decides to extend them again.

The Pondok Ranggon cemetery in east Jakarta last week. (Photo by Erwida Maulia)

Another concern is the upcoming regional elections. Nine out of 34 provinces are due to vote for governors on Dec. 9, and 37 municipalities and 224 regencies will elect mayors and regents. Jakarta is not holding elections this year, but some of its satellite cities are.

The General Elections Commissions has set rules on health protocols such as capping the number of people attending campaign events at 50, encouraging candidates to campaign online, and including masks and hand sanitizer in goody bags distributed to supporters. But infections have spread in crowds on many occasions so far.

Commissions Chairman Arief Budiman told a hearing with lawmakers on Sept. 9 that 60 candidates had been confirmed positive after being tested as part of the registration procedure. Three candidates have since reportedly died from COVID-19.

Budiman himself and two commissioners later tested positive for the virus, in addition to at least 21 election officers. Separately, the Elections Supervisory Body said 163 of its officers in a number of regions had contracted the virus as of Sept. 21.

Indonesia has also seen clusters in government offices. The health ministry in Jakarta had 262 infections as of the end of September, followed by the defense ministry and the corruption eradication commission.

But the government and parliament have agreed there is no need to further delay the elections, which had initially been scheduled for September.

"President Joko Widodo has asserted that regional elections cannot wait until the pandemic is over, because no single country knows when it will be over," presidential spokesman Fadjroel Rachman said on Sept. 22. "Regional elections should be held with strict health protocols to ensure safety and democratic process. It is not impossible to have regional elections during the pandemic."

The decision has sparked criticisms from various organizations, including the National Commission for Human Rights and Indonesia's two largest Muslim groups, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah.

"The government, the House of Representatives and the elections organizers are putting many lives at stake by pushing for regional elections amid the still very concerning pandemic condition," a coalition of election watchdogs and some other NGOs said in a statement. "We urge a delay to the 2020 regional elections -- until the pandemic situation is under control."

Meanwhile, the passage of an omnibus law on job creation on Monday sparked new concerns, with labor unions and student organizations calling for rallies in Jakarta and a number of other regions this week in protest against the bill.

"Many industrial clusters have popped up and are potentially harming manufacturing activities and other industrial sectors. Rally crowds will potentially create similar [clusters]," Wiku Adisasmito, spokesman of the government's COVID-19 taskforce, said on Tuesday.

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