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In Philly’s Indonesian community, every COVID-19 death has been impactful. And prompts its members to help each other

November 23, 2020 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose

[Editor’s note: This story is one of a multi-part collaboration with the Indonesian Lantern, Philadelphia’s Indonesian news organization.]

About 150 Indonesians in Philadelphia — in a community of between 6,000 to 8,000 —  were infected with COVID-19, from March to August 2020. There have been eight or nine COVID-related deaths in the community.

Pastor Lukas Kusuma.

Since April, Pastor Lukas Kusuma has helped Indonesians to check themselves into COVID-19 free screening centers run in part by the city. One of the fatalities, a man, 57, died because his condition was so severe. The man had gone into self-imposed quarantine and was waiting for the results of his test at home when he died.

His body was cremated in Philadelphia, and his ashes were sent to Jakarta, Indonesia. ”We did all we could, and the ashes have been received by the victim’s wife,'” said Pastor Lukas the leader of the Bethany Miracle Center Church.

The number of those within Philadelphia’s Indonesian community who are infected with COVID has shrunk dramatically since August, and only 20 people are currently sick.

Pastor Aldo Siahaan.

”Maybe it’s because they’ve started to get used to avoiding and taking precautions, and always wearing masks and avoiding crowds,'” said Pastor Aldo Siahaan, of the Philadelphia Praise Center Church in South Philadelphia.

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It isn’t just Pastor Aldo who has noticed a change.

“At first, they probably felt shy, they didn’t want to call and be tested, because they worried about the community, they worried about the workplace … but right now, people are more open, and if they have a symptom, they just call us, or call me basically,” said Agnes ‘Daby’ Utojohardjo, an Indonesian interpreter at the City of Philadelphia‘s Health Center 2 at 1700 S. Broad Street.

Although things may have gotten better, they didn’t start out all that great. During the pandemic, members of Philadelphia’s Indonesian community were at an unusually high risk of getting or transmitting COVID-19.

Dr. Sarah Johnson, a doctor at Philadelphia’s Health Center 2, explained the risk factors affecting their Indonesian-speaking patient population. “To some extent, our Indonesian patients have suffered greatly from the pandemic in such that many of them live in very large, close-knit families. Many of them are traveling great distances to work together, and traveling in vehicles together.”

Many Indonesian people in Philadelphia work in manufacturing, standing all day and coming in contact with many other workers. Often, these are other immigrants from Latin America, Cambodia, Vietnam and other countries. In fact, many workers were infected inside worker-shuttle vans. Ten to 15 people have to be crammed into the cars, making them a potential breeding ground for infections.

According to people in the community, those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms have been taken to Health Centers or Rite Aid for free check-ups. If they test positive they are taken to Health Center 3,at 555 S. 43 Street.

Pastor Benny Krisbianto.

Pastor Benny Krisbianto, the leader of the Church Nation Worship Center, has been helping people get to their appointments, personally delivering 32-33 people to the health center. ”Of the 12 positive people, a few were treated at Methodist Hospital, South Philadelphia,” Pastor Benny added.

Pastor Aldo has also arranged for a number of volunteers to shuttle patients to the Health Center at Penn Hospital, or to Penn Urgent Care to conduct COVID-19 checks.

Indonesians can also now check themselves for free at Vybe Urgent Care clinic, or at the Vybe’s mobile truck which usually travels between South Snyder and South 5th Street every day. Vybe is offering free PRC COVID-19 tests, although the rapid tests are not free. Selected Rite Aid and CVS pharmacies also offer testing.

There is a difference between the care offered at urgent cares and what is offered at the health centers, however, say the health center staff.

“When you’re going to an urgent care like Vybe or MyDoc, generally they are addressing only that issue that you came in for that day,” said Dr. Johnson. She explained that Health Center 2 offers complete care, everything from blood pressure and diabetes checks to mammograms.

Sara Enes, the director of Health Center 2, explained that the health center has continuity of care, so patients always see the same doctor. “The physician gets to know them, their history, and, especially in COVID, where they reside with whom they reside, how they get to and from work, what environmental hazards are in front of them,” Enes said.

This lets doctors “essentially tailor a health care plan to that individual,” she added

Health Center 2 serves a large Indonesian community. It is lucky enough to not only have a language line, but also Utojohardjo as an interpreter.

“Having somebody on-site that is reassuring and trusting and that they know will assist them really can make the difference between whether or not someone calls to report symptoms,” said Enes.

"Having somebody on-site that is reassuring and trusting and that they know will assist them really can make the difference."
Sara Enes, Health Center 2

Dr. Johnson added that having Utojohardjo on board can help people navigate the often complicated American health system. “This has allowed the Health Center to connect with the Indonesian community during the pandemic, and try to offer help and information,” she said.

“There was a lot of frustration with misinformation at the beginning of the pandemic,” said Dr. Johnson, but working with Utojohardjo, and the community, allowed Health Center 2 to get across information about treatment, and symptoms, self-isolation and  “basic conversations about the importance of wearing a mask and social distancing.”

The Philadelphia Health Center network has a residency requirement, patients need to prove they live in the city, but it does not take citizenship into account.

“We work very hard to be seen as a safe place for people regardless of what your legal status is here, and certainly the fear is there, but we work really hard to let people know that we’re not going to deny you, we’re not going to be someone who would turn you in,” said Dr. Johnson.

But not everyone turns to the health centers.

An Indonesian mother in her 70s supposedly recovered after being given the drug hydroxychloroquine by Pastor Emmanuel Tandean, the leader of New Life Praise Center. ”I got it from a doctor in South Philadelphia and I gave her two tablets, she healed straight away,'” he said. According to Pastor Emmanuel, after being given the drug, the mother who had been coughing all night so much she couldn’t sleep, could finally rest.

Next, the patient was given the drug Azithromycin. After five days, she reported she was cured.  ”After being examined every week and having a blood sample taken, she was declared cured,” Pastor Tandean said.

Earlier this year the FDA revoked the emergency use of hydroxychloroquine, saying that it was unlikely to be of use against the virus and adding in a statement, “in light of ongoing serious cardiac adverse events and other potential serious side effects, the known and potential benefits of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine no longer outweigh the known and potential risks for the authorized use.”

Although an article in The Lancet, a prominent medical journal, found some possible use for Azithromycin in treating COVID-19, prescription antibiotics and medications should never be used without the supervision of a medical professional.

Along with the less traditional activities, like dispensing medication, churches in the Philadelphian Indonesian community have stepped up with charitable works.

Food distribution efforts by Bethany Miracle Center Church. (Photo courtesy of Indonesian Lantern)

Starting at 7 a.m., 600 people queue up in front of Bethany Miracle Center Church, to get food sharing packages that include breakfast, lunch and milk, and are distributed every Thursday from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. In addition to Indonesians, the people who line up for the distribution are Vietnamese and other Asians, Mexicans, Middle Easterners, and U.S citizens. Bethany Church also distributes food packages for Indonesians to their homes.

Pastor Tandean said he has also distributed debit cards, issued by the CMAX Foundation, to approximately 80 members of the congregation. Families in need were each given $800. ”We have distributed them two to three [times] between June and August 2020,” he said.

"The positive that I'm thinking right now, with this situation is, people are more aware."
Agnes Utojohardjo

Although Utojohardjo said that in the beginning of the pandemic was scary, now, she can see a silver lining in the increased awareness of safeguards, the outpouring of charity, and community members coming together to help each other.

“The positive that I’m thinking right now, with this situation is, people are more aware, pay attention to other people, communities become more and more close, they pay attention,” Utojohardjo said. “If somebody probably needs help, they come to help.”


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