Oleh Alia Zelko
13 July 2020
ASRI, COVID-19, and the “New Normal”

2020, the year that changed our perspective on what we, as a global community considers “normal”. What we took for granted, such as a handshake at a business meeting, a hug between friends, or a visit to a grandparent’s house was suddenly dangerous social exchanges. We went from being told to step away from our screens and have face to face interactions for the sake of our mental health to being encouraged to interact exclusively online to protect the health of the most vulnerable in our community. Uncertainty, fear, and anxiety became the predominant emotions of the masses, all caused by a single-stranded RNA virus, which we now refer to as COVID-19. 

ASRI’s project locations are set in rural Indonesia, where basic services such a healthcare, education, and a stable internet connection can be difficult to access. As news about the pandemic spread throughout these communities, so did misinformation and fear. ASRI’s own staff raised concerns about working in a medical center. In the face of these challenges ASRI, as a team, rose up and let their response to this pandemic be led by compassion and not fear. 

Jumping into action, ASRI began separating and isolating any patient or staff that had traveled or presented with flu-like symptoms and reported possible cases to the district health office, who would then provide tests. Due to this rapid response, one of ASRI’s own employees, who had returned from traveling abroad, became the first officially recognized COVID-19 patient in the regency. He was put into a designated isolation room at the ASRI Medical Center and was given comprehensive care while awaiting symptoms to resolve. Luckily his symptoms were mild and he felt recovered at about 10 days after initial diagnosis. Unfortunately, as of now, Indonesian regulations have not followed WHO recommended protocol of allowing a patient out from COVID-19 care, if a) symptomatic; patients get released 10 days after symptom onset, plus an additional 3 days without symptoms, b) asymptomatic; patients get released 10 days after testing positive. ASRI’s employee had to wait for three (3) months and was subjected to 14 tests since he was first isolated before he tested negative twice in a row and was determined by the local and national government to be clear of the virus. During this excessive wait, he was separated from his family, friends, and support system. This case study has fueled ASRI to push for an amendment to the current regulations in Indonesia. ASRI’s medical care staff and management have been in contact with influential leaders throughout Indonesia to influence the local and national government to base regulations, prevention, and treatment protocols off of the most current scientific understanding of the disease process.

Patient of Covid-19

The pandemic has not only affected the health of the population, but also household economic welfare. Due to the sudden cease in international trade and the collapse of the world’s economy, businesses have been forced to close their doors, and supply chains have been severed, leaving many unemployed. In the communities ASRI works in, farmers seem to be affected the most. Having produce ready to harvest but no buyer, or if they are lucky enough to find a wholesaler to buy their agricultural products the price drop has been so dramatic that it has left many farmers asking: How will I support my family?

Unfortunately, the answer to that question many times relies on the availability to exploit the natural environment, and in forest adjacent communities this has meant resorting to logging. ASRI’s planetary health system of conservation uses the understanding of the interconnectivity of the health of the rainforest and the health of the people. Without the health of one, there is a decline in the health of the other. Studies have shown that deforestation contributes to poor health by increasing flooding, reducing freshwater, destabilizing weather, and increasing insect-borne illness. Yet in these uncertain times, logging can potentially be the only way for families to pay for medical care, education, and nutritious food. 

Ensuring that no one will have to choose between the health of their family and the health of the environment, ASRI has created a Conservation Stimulus program in which agricultural products such as rice are bought, at pre-COVID-19 prices, from struggling farmers and distributed to the most vulnerable in the community. ASRI will continue to expand this program to continue to support the community. 

Supporting farmers in Covid-19 situation

In addition to the healthcare and economic support ASRI provides, they have also distributed over 2000 reusable masks with information leaflets attached to disseminate scientifically and relatable information. ASRI furthermore has provided the local government clinics with protective gear, participated in government lead COVID-19 task forces, and have created the social media platform dirumahjak_ to involve youth engagement in stopping the spread of the virus and misinformation. Increasing their online presence and ensuring accurate information is spread throughout Indonesia, ASRI has been participating in print and radio interviews and has spoken in webinars with information on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, combat Covid-19 related stigma that survivors and healthcare workers are faced with, and how pandemics relate to environmental and forest health. These webinars have been attended by upwards of 150 people including high profile government officials and policy influencers.

Distribution reusable masks

As the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will be felt for years to come and as we all adjust to the “new normal”, generous donations from individuals and funding organizations allow ASRI to continue to provide comprehensive care for the people, ecosystem and the planet.