Fighting for environmental health in Jayapura during COVID-19
In the face of the pandemic, a community rallies to provide a safe and healthy environment
JAYAPURA, Indonesia – It wasn’t even noon yet in Jayapura, but the temperature was already rising, and the air was thick with humidity. Beads of sweat streamed down Indri Sodyah’s face past her red veil as she returned from an activity to disinfect public places in the district.
As Indri shared her story, her voice was calm and almost expressionless, a stark contrast to when she speaks while carrying out her job at the Yapsi health centre. Indri works as an Environmental Health Officer and is responsible for educating the community on how their environment can affect their health. “An unhealthy environment creates unhealthy families,” she frequently tells them.
Yapsi is a rural sub-district in Papua located over 100 kilometres from the centre of the provincial capital Jayapura. In mid-April, fears that the COVID-19 virus had reached the community began to circulate when several residents were classified as “patients under monitoring”, meaning they were required by the government to report to local health agencies if they showed any COVID-19 symptoms.
Although results of a rapid test were negative, the health centre began their work to enable residents to better protect themselves against potential infection. Indri convinced them to stay safe by following recommended safety measures, which included washing hands with soap, using masks and maintaining social distancing.
“An unhealthy environment creates unhealthy families."
Indri regularly travels with her colleagues from the health centre to Yapsi to promote these practices, and also coordinates with village heads to build handwashing stations and plan disinfection activities to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by the community.
“We say thank you,” said Bestiana, a local resident who lives in Ongan Jaya village. “The health centre taught us that washing hands with soap will help get rid of COVID".
Getting residents in the villages to change their behaviours wasn’t always so straightforward. For years, Indri tried to convince them to stop defecating in the open, a common practice with serious consequences to public health. Many residents initially refused, and some village leaders were sceptical about changing deeply ingrained habits.
Indri, however, refused to give up and eventually rallied the village to work together to build community toilets. As a result, Purnawajati village successfully became the first open defecation free village in Yapsi in 2016.
“Community awareness has become my responsibility."
“Community awareness has become my responsibility,” Indri said. “I want them to work together to solve health problems together.”
This time, all stakeholders in Yapsi – including the head of village, youth organizations and the private sector – are coming together. All public places now provide a facility for washing hands with soap. Places of worship agreed to stop activities that congregate the masses.
The health centre is cleaning their facilities and other public places with disinfectant, which is supported by UNICEF with funding from USAID in partnership with the Jayapura District Health Office. They are also planning hygiene promotion activities in several villages, along with capacity building for environmental health workers in Jayapura.
“I want them to work together to solve health problems together.”
“We feel protected now that the health centre is spraying [disinfectant],” said Kornelis from Taja village.
So far, there haven’t been any confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported in Yapsi, which can be attributed in part to Indri and her team’s previous efforts to promote a clean environment.
“The COVID crisis has shone a spotlight on the importance of basic hand hygiene as a highly effective, low cost means to prevent transmission of disease,” said Ann Thomas, UNICEF Indonesia Chief of WASH. “Our response strategy aims to help sustain these practices beyond the COVID crisis to help prevent the routine respiratory and diarrheal diseases that are responsible for the majority of child deaths in this country under normal circumstances.”
Just like the long road that she has to tackle every day from the health centre, Indri knows there is still a long way to go. But this time, she doesn’t have to work alone.