JAKARTA (Reuters) – As debate rages about the true death toll caused by the coronavirus outbreak in Indonesia, Jakarta coffin maker Sahroni has been too busy to pay the issue much attention.
From his workshop in the Pondok Kelapa cemetery in the east of the capital, he has been putting in 16-hour days.
“Usually we sell between five to seven coffins a day, but now it is up to 20 to 30 coffins a day,” said Sahroni, 38, as he applied base coat onto a wooden coffin.
The shelves of his workshop were stacked with freshly painted coffins, while out front a row of white crosses dried under the tropical sun.
“Our working hours are now from morning to midnight,” said Sahroni, who uses one name.
The warehouse where Sahroni works normally specialises in coffins for Indonesia’s Christian minority, but now they are providing coffins for all denominations, including Muslims who would usually be buried in a shroud. New protocols for victims or suspected victims of COVID-19 call for the use of coffins.
As of Wednesday, Indonesia had identified nearly 3,000 cases and recorded 240 deaths. But public health experts and epidemiologists point to the relatively low frequency of testing and high death rate as indications the true infection rate is likely substantially higher.
Exclusive data obtained by Reuters revealed there were nearly 4,400 burials in Jakarta this March, a 40% jump from any month in the past two years, and a sign deaths from the virus could be higher than officially reported.
Data from the Jakarta governor’s office further showed more than 438 people had been buried according to COVID-19 protocols between March 2 and April 6, despite the national death toll standing at just under half that figure.
In some cases, victims suspected of contracting the disease have died before test results were available, seeing them buried according to COVID-19 protocols as a precaution.
Whatever the true figures are, those working in the funeral industry in Jakarta, home to more than 10 million people and the epicentre of the outbreak in the world’s fourth most populous nation, are preparing for a mounting toll.
Sahroni’s company has reopened an old coffin-making warehouse in West Java, Indonesia’s most populous province, started a new line of cheaper coffins and donated 1,000 coffins to hospitals.
Those responsible for transporting coronavirus victims to their burial grounds are also grappling with the devastating fallout of the pandemic.
“We have been burying dead bodies non-stop until 10 pm and we continue with the same thing in the morning,” said Sumiyati, a 48-year-old ambulance driver for the city’s department of parks and cemeteries who also uses one name.
She added that burials had jumped from 30 to 40 a day in the past week and that a new burial ground had been opened this month.
Sumiyati now carries out her job in protective gear – a plastic raincoat, gloves, masks and boots – and her family has also implemented new protocols.
“At home, my children have prepared disinfectant spray, which they spray on me. If not, they won’t let me in,” she said. “That is the consequences of this job. We must accept the risk.”
(Additional reporting by Cinthya Wahyuwidi; Writing by Kate Lamb; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)