At least eight people who have refused to wear masks during the coronavirus pandemic have been forced to dig graves for people who died from covid-19 in the province of East Java, Indonesia, according to a report from the Jakarta Post.
“There are only three available gravediggers at the moment, so I thought I might as well put these people to work with them,” local politician Suyono told Tribun News, according to an English-language translation by the Jakarta Post.
The article notes that anti-maskers who are being punished are not forced to handle the dead bodies and are instead doing the manual labor of digging graves and preparing the plots with wooden planks to support the caskets. Public health officials in the district of Cerme handle the bodies using full-body protective equipment, ensuring there’s no risk of exposure.
Indonesia instituted a national law requiring masks to be worn in early April but that policy was strengthened in July after East Java saw a spike in cases and a survey of the region found that 70% of people in the province weren’t wearing a mask. Indonesia, like many other low and middle-income countries, has struggled to contain the spread of the virus for reasons that often center around a lack of wealth and resources—something that can limit testing and contact tracing. But masks are a relatively inexpensive public health measure that can literally save lives.
Indonesia has identified over 222,000 cases and 8,841 deaths from covid so far this year, and the country recorded 3,141 new cases on Monday alone, with 118 new deaths for the day. The U.S., a much wealthier country than Indonesia, has identified over 6.5 million cases and more than 194,000 deaths, setting it apart from other wealthy countries that haven’t seen nearly as much devastation.
While a reluctance to wear masks to protect public health is sometimes seen as a uniquely American problem, there are anti-maskers all over the world in places like Germany, Indonesia, and France. Even Hong Kong has seen some anti-mask videos go viral, despite the fact that Hong Kong health officials were the earliest in the world to advise citizens to wear masks, issuing warnings as early as mid-January.
“Please take care if you are ill,” Dr. Gabriel Leung, Founding Director of the WHO Collaborating Center for Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Control, said at a press conference in Hong Kong on January 21. “If you are going to a crowded place, put on a mask even if you are not ill because others may be, even if they have cough etiquette or sneeze etiquette, they may still get in touch with you.”
While masks have been shown to slow the spread of the disease, it’s not the only thing that determines whether a country can get the pandemic under control. Effective testing, contact tracing, and lockdowns are all part of the response that need to be used strategically.
The U.S. has never entertained the idea of a nationwide mandatory mask order, largely because President Donald Trump has ridiculed the idea, instead leaving it up to the states. But the president hasn’t personally honored state decisions when it comes to masks and large gatherings.
Trump even held a large indoor rally Sunday night in Henderson, Nevada that was clearly in violation of the state’s 50-person limit for indoor gatherings. Trump supporters who sat behind the president were largely wearing masks, but photos from the event show that many people didn’t wear them when the president wasn’t on stage.
But even with masks, the rally was technically illegal and the city of Henderson issued a statement overnight saying that the host of the event Xtreme Manufacturing, could face fines of $500 per violation.
As Bob Woodward’s new book, titled Rage, explains, Trump knew just how dangerous this virus could be back in January and yet belittled the problem publicly, often insisting that the virus would miraculously go away eventually.
“It goes through air, Bob,” Trump told Woodward over the phone on February 7 in recently released audio recordings.
“That’s always tougher than the touch,” Trump continued. “You know, the touch, you don’t have to touch things, right? But the air, you just breathe the air. That’s how it’s passed. And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than your... you know, your... even your strenuous flus.”
At least 1,550 Americans died over the weekend from covid-19. Perhaps Trump could head out to a local cemetery and get digging. At this point, it’s the least he could do.