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Affected communities as first responders: How an Indonesian village led the local fight against COVID-19



When COVID-19 began to spread across Indonesia, the Javanese village of Gumuk Indah did not wait for assistance from government or for international NGOs to fly in. Taking matters into their own hands, residents put a response system in place to protect the community. They relied on their own skills and resourcefulness, while supporting the local economy and mitigating risks.

“We live on the island of Java, in an urban area near Yogyakarta”, explains Ary Ananta. Besides being a Gumuk Indah resident and volunteer, Ary is also a project and emergency response manager at the local country office of Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund, a Sphere partner organisation. “My kampung [village] includes more or less 130 households and sits on the slopes of the Merapi volcano. We were hit by an earthquake in 2006 and eruptions in 2010; then, in March this year, we were reached by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“We tried not to get overwhelmed by panic. We started thinking about ways to help the community. We decided to take action.”

Just like her fellow Gumuk Indah residents, Veronica Oktik Lestari immediately began to fear for her family’s livelihood. Her husband, who works in a Yogyakarta restaurant, saw his shifts drastically reduced. Their social relationships and intense community life very quickly came to a halt.

“I used to go to church, visit my parents every day and participate in a women’s empowerment organisation. I am also a member of a choir; we would sing at ceremonies”, she says. “We tried not to get overwhelmed by panic. Through our empowerment organisation’s WhatsApp group, we shared health and hygiene tips and motivated each other. We started thinking about ways to help the community. We decided to take action.”

In March, community volunteers promptly established a COVID-19 task force to tackle the spreading virus.

The task force focused on three main things: preventing the transmission of the virus through health promotion activities, supporting the local economy and reducing risks within the community.

“We set up a checkpoint at the entrance of the kampung with the help of volunteers”, explains Wisnu Isnawan, head of a neighbourhood association and part of the COVID-19 task force. “We required people to wash their hands before going through the checkpoint, measured the temperature of those entering the village and collected information about temporary visitors.”

Some volunteers were in charge of promoting frequent handwashing or spraying disinfectant in public places. Others helped elderly people and people with disabilities.

“Local tailors produced some 300 masks, including smaller ones for children. We distributed three or four per household. We wanted to maximise the potential of our own residents”

Women and girls were involved in conducting surveys, both online and offline, to gather disaggregated data and determine further interventions. The community conducted evaluations every nine days, discussing people’s needs with community leaders.

To reduce the impact of the pandemic on local businesses, the kampung task force started a ‘community self-help’ movement collecting donations and distributing food and hygiene kits, while also disseminating health and hygiene information. Between March and June, residents received aid packs four times, the first delivery taking place only six days after the establishment of the task force.

“Local tailors produced some 300 masks, including smaller ones for children. We distributed three or four per household”, explains Wisnu. “We wanted to maximise the potential of our own residents”, he adds.

What happened in Gumuk Indah is an excellent example of a community-led response that puts the needs of the population at the centre. In June, the experience was the focus of a Sphere webinar organised with support from the H2H Network. Some 260 humanitarian practitioners took part to learn from the volunteers’ experience.

By focusing on human dignity and community engagement, humanitarian standards provide a helpful framework to guide similar responses. They also ensure affected communities are at the core of every decision made.

Over the coming months, Sphere and its partners will host six more webinars tackling community engagement and the application of humanitarian standards as part of the COVID-19 response.