Devastated Indonesian parents mourn children lost to COVID-19

Paga / Jakarta, Indonesia – At a hospital in Indonesia’s Sikka regency, funeral workers have come to collect a small coffin left outside the emergency ward. It is light enough for the two workers to carry with ease. Inside is the body of a two-month-old baby.

Her name was Maria.

“The symptoms were coughing, runny nose and fever. Now, our child has died,” her mother, Mari Balu, said.

In the days before their daughter’s death, Mari and her husband travelled from their village in Paga, seeking medical care for their sick child.

They travelled by motorbike and ambulance for almost three hours to get to the hospital in Maumere, the capital of Sikka regency, in East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia’s southernmost province.

Now their traumatic ordeal is over – and it ended as Mari feared it would.

They have returned home to their village to share the sad news with their community.

“We came back here from Maumere because our child is dead,” Mari said.

Mari and her family outside their home in East Nusa Tenggara [Supplied]

“When we saw that our daughter had died, it was my husband who organised the funeral.”

The family lives in a remote community. There is no electricity in their village. The nearest source of water is two kilometres (1.2 miles) away.

Mari does not have a photo of her daughter and hopes the memory of their short time together will not fade.

“I stay at home and rest because I am always thinking about my daughter,” she said.

100 children die each week

The pain of losing a child to COVID-19 is something many families across Indonesia are now experiencing.

At least 1,245 Indonesian children have died from coronavirus since the pandemic began, although the actual number is thought to be higher, given the low level of testing for the virus in remote areas.

The majority of those who died were under the age of five.

According to the Indonesian Paediatric Society (IDAI), more than 100 Indonesian children have died every week since July from COVID-19.

Their data shows more than 70 percent of child deaths related to COVID-19 occurred in the past two months, coinciding with the spread of the Delta variant around Indonesia.

Dr Aman Bhakti Pulungan, the head of the IDAI, says there are a few factors contributing to the high mortality rate from COVID-19 for young children.

Among them, inadequate facilities for treating sick children at hospitals and health clinics.

“Inequality is one of the problems. Inequality in treatment because not every place has a paediatric or neonatal intensive care unit,” Dr Aman said.

Carpenters at a workshop in Tangerang make coffins for babies and children who died from coronavirus [Al Jazeera]

“People said that children are not affected and that children cannot die. But right now, we have a lot of children dying.”

Experts warn that a slow vaccination drive outside big cities is also putting young people in danger, as many children contract the virus from unvaccinated family members.

“Indonesia is not just Java and Bali… The vaccine coverage of the whole population, including the elderly is not enough yet,” Dr Aman said.

“Most children [contract the virus] from within the family. Especially babies and those under five.”

In many parts of the country, rates of childhood comorbidity are high, which doctors warn can heighten the risk.

Dr Mario Nara is a paediatrician based in Sikka, East Nusa Tenggara, a province with high rates of malnutrition and child mortality.

“Some are asthmatic … some are malnourished …others have heart problems, or other disabilities. They may have hydrocephalus [fluid in cavities of the brain], cerebral palsy and most of them are stunted,” he said.

“A condition like stunting or malnutrition will impact the child’s immune system. If they get an infection, it is likely to hit them harder.”

‘She was a good child’

Outside a small house in West Jakarta, a pink bicycle is parked outside Jubaedah’s house.

Shalova, 4, fell sick after the Eid al-Fitr holiday in May and her condition deteriorated [Supplied]

Part of the bicycle frame is still covered with bubble wrap. It was supposed to be a gift for her four-year-old granddaughter, Shalova.

But she never got the chance to ride it.

“She was a good child. She was cute and smart. Everyone liked her,” Jubaedah said.

“Poor child, she was so sweet. Who would have thought she would live a short life?”

Shalova fell ill shortly after the religious holiday of Eid al-Fitr in May. Her family watched in horror as her condition rapidly deteriorated.

“Her temperature kept going up. She didn’t want to eat or drink. I gave her milk and she vomited. When I said her name, even her eyes looked different,” Jubaedah said.

“The hospital tested her but by the time they got the result, which was positive, she had already died. Hardly anyone came for her funeral.”

Weeks after her granddaughter’s death, Jubaedah is struggling to move on.

She said Shalova was closer to her than anyone else in the family – whenever she went out, Shalova would follow. And every night, Shalova would sleep next to her.

Now, her days are quiet and lonely.

She often watches videos on her phone of Shalova dancing.

“She used to be with me every day … She called me ‘mama’. When they took her to the intensive care unit that was the last time I saw her,” Jubaedah cried.

“She is in heaven now. I am sad she left me behind.”