Tzu Chi Indonesia’s Anti-Coronavirus Endeavors

Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago state and the fourth most populous country. The nation faced a severe challenge in tackling the coronavirus infection when the pandemic broke out around the world. With 27 years of experience in charitable work, Tzu Chi Indonesia quickly swung into action to help soften the impact.

Fishermen steer their boats toward an Indonesian warship carrying food prepared by Tzu Chi for a distribution. The distribution event, held on June 12 in Suramadu waters in the Madura Strait, benefited over 2,000 fishermen. Courtesy of Surabaya city government

The COVID-19 pandemic began its insidious spread around the world in the first quarter of 2020. Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo announced the country’s first two confirmed cases on March 2, 2020. The announcement was quickly followed by a burst of panic buying, as people began worrying that the government might enact a lockdown to curb the spread of the infection. Long lines formed at almost every supermarket and convenience store in the country.

It wasn’t long before the pandemic severely strained the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) the world over. The need hit Indonesia hard as well. Face masks and hand sanitizer were in short supply, and the cost of what could be purchased soon tripled. Just as the need for it rose, the supply of readily available PPE dwindled. Medical workers fighting the disease on the front lines were especially in dire need.

Tzu Chi Indonesia quickly responded to the PPE shortage in the nation. By late January, Tzu Chi volunteers in Indonesia had purchased PPE and sent the supplies to China to help that nation fight the escalating outbreak there. At the same time, they stockpiled some PPE in case of an outbreak in Indonesia. It was a wise strategy. When the need for PPE rose in Indonesia, Tzu Chi Indonesia was able to quickly donate face masks and protective gowns to frontline medical workers.

In March, to help the government deal with the infection, Tzu Chi Indonesia began working with the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry to raise money to buy anti-coronavirus supplies for donation. The supplies included COVID-19 test kits, ventilators, protective gowns, safety goggles, and N95 masks. The purchases were made in Indonesia and China. Tzu Chi Indonesia arranged for three chartered plane trips to transport the items purchased in China back to Indonesia. When the shipments arrived, government officials helped hurry them through customs duty-free. On March 22, with the help of the military and police, the medical equipment and supplies began to be delivered to different places in the country for distribution.

Warm response from the business sector

Sugianto Kusuma (郭再源) and Franky Oesman Widjaja (黃榮年), deputy CEOs of Tzu Chi Indonesia, were two major figures behind the fundraising campaign. They realized early that if not properly tackled, the highly contagious COVID-19 might spiral out of control, putting people’s lives at risk and causing social and economic upheaval. However, to tackle the disease and stem its spread, a lot of PPE and other medical supplies would be needed, the purchase of which would require staggering amounts of money. What should they do?

Kusuma has an optimistic personality, which won him the nickname “Mr. No Problem.” He believes that all challenges can eventually be overcome if one is working for the benefit of others. He and Widjaja thus jumped right in and began soliciting donations from the business sector.

The two men are themselves big-time entrepreneurs, and joined Tzu Chi many years ago. They have since willingly and cheerfully shouldered many responsibilities to help the foundation carry out its philanthropic work. The examples they’ve set have inspired many businesspeople to follow in their footsteps by becoming long-term donors or volunteers themselves. During the fundraising campaign this time, the participation of these businesspeople was an important factor in enabling Tzu Chi and the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry to raise the money required to purchase much needed anti-coronavirus supplies.

Widjaja said that Tzu Chi Indonesia has left deep charitable footprints locally over the last 27 years. This is indicated by how enthusiastically the business sector has pitched in to help this time. More than a hundred companies have chipped in so far. “In fact, many companies have been negatively impacted by the pandemic themselves, and yet they are still willing to help,” said Widjaja. “I believe that we’ll be able to pull through the pandemic with all of us working together in unison.”

The foundation uses funds only for the purpose for which they were donated. There is a report dedicated to the expenditure of the donations raised to help with the anti-coronavirus campaign. “We need to let the donors know that every penny they’ve given has been used properly,” Widjaja explained. “Our dedicated report has grown to more than a hundred pages now and is constantly being updated.”

Tzu Chi volunteers and entrepreneurs from the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry donate medical supplies to Indonesia’s Ministry of Health on April 6 at the Tzu Chi Jakarta Complex.

A stabilizing force

The appearance of the novel coronavirus infection has forced people to change their lifestyles and induced an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty in societies around the world. In the face of these new challenges, Liu Su-mei (劉素美), CEO of Tzu Chi Indonesia, thanked Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s teachings for helping her and other volunteers stay calm. “Because of the Master’s teachings, we realize that we need to remain calm and unflustered in all circumstances. Doing so will enable us to handle any situation with wisdom,” Liu said.

Liu set up an Anti-Coronavirus Emergency Relief Executive Team to tackle the pandemic when COVID-19 made its way into Indonesia. The team decided that all Tzu Chi volunteers and employees in Indonesia would comply with the government’s measures to combat the coronavirus and follow the decisions of Tzu Chi headquarters in Taiwan. All volunteers and employees were determined to stick to their posts in the battle against the infection.

When the Indonesian government instituted large-scale social restrictions known as Pembatasan Sosial Berskala Besar (PSBB) in April, some Tzu Chi staffers began working from home. But Tzu Chi Indonesia office employees in Jakarta, in departments such as secretariat, general affairs, finance, and purchasing, continued to work on-site. Sometimes they even needed to work overtime late into the night. Their top priority at the time was to get the medical supplies donated by Tzu Chi into the hands of healthcare professionals as quickly as possible, to protect them from the virus.

The demand was staggering when Tzu Chi first started distributing PPE and other medical equipment and supplies in Indonesia. Staffers at the Secretariat Department began receiving more than a thousand e-mails each day asking for help from Tzu Chi. A dedicated hotline hadn’t yet been set up, and so many medical facilities and individuals also phoned the office asking for help. “Sometimes we received phone calls as late as 11 p.m. applying for donations of medical supplies,” said employee Marwan Yaumal Akbar. To handle the demand, he often had to spend the night in the dormitory at the office, but he didn’t mind at all. “Working at a charity organization can sometimes take a lot out of you,” he said, “but we feel richly rewarded to be able to help others.”

Staffers at the General Affairs Department are responsible for receiving and shipping supplies. When they receive requests from the Secretariat Department, they need to prepare materials for shipping and place them in front of the warehouse. And they don’t always know when a batch of supplies will arrive. During the early days of the pandemic, when the demand for supplies was high, there were frequently nights when the staffers arrived home from work only to be called back to the office in the wee hours to receive a new shipment of goods. Staffer Wu Tian-qi (吳天旗) said, “This anti-coronavirus mission is harder to carry out than other disaster relief operations. We have to stand at the ready all the time, while taking precautions ourselves to avoid getting infected with the virus. I often remind my fellow colleagues not to go anywhere after work, because if we contract the virus we won’t be able to work.”

Huang Li-chun (黃禮春), the director of the Secretariat Department, has worked for Tzu Chi for many years. He has been a key figure in the distribution of anti-coronavirus supplies during the pandemic. Spending nights at the office was typical for him too when the high demand for supplies kept them busy. His colleagues often saw him sorting goods in the basement at night wearing his pajamas.

He admitted that keeping up the heavy workload left him tired, but it was countered by seeing the messages for Tzu Chi on social media, thanking them for their help and wishing them the best. These messages of gratitude and goodwill caused a profound joy to rise in him. “Blessed with all the best wishes from so many people, I believe we will all remain sound and healthy,” Huang remarked.

Tzu Chi employees in Jakarta pack goods in mid-May for distribution to people whose livelihoods have been seriously impacted by the lockdown measures implemented by the government to contain the coronavirus. Anand Yahya

Meeting the needs

Tzu Chi Indonesia started shipping the personal protective equipment it had in stock to medical facilities in the country on March 18, 2020. Four thousand masks and 50 protective gowns were delivered on March 21 to RSUD Bogor, a hospital in the city of Bogor, West Java. The hospital had been designated by the regional government on March 17 to treat COVID-19 patients. Because there was such a severe shortage of PPE on the market at the time, Ilham Chaidir, the superintendent of the hospital, was deeply moved when he received the medical supplies from Tzu Chi volunteers. “You make us feel that we are not working alone in the battle against the coronavirus,” he said.

RS Sumber Waras in Jakarta was another hospital that benefited from Tzu Chi’s donation of PPE. “Our hospital has only a small stockpile of face masks,” said Dr. Faye Yowargana to the Tzu Chi volunteers who delivered 4,000 masks to the hospital. “We’ll run out of our supply next week. That’s why I contacted Tzu Chi for help. Thank you so much for delivering the 4,000 masks to us. You’ve prevented an emergency for our hospital.” She couldn’t stop thanking the volunteers for their assistance.

On March 22, a million COVID-19 test kits arrived in Jakarta. They had been purchased from China by Tzu Chi Indonesia. Terawan Agus Putranto, Indonesia’s Minister of Health, arrived personally at the Tzu Chi office in Jakarta to receive 25,000 of the test kits, which were then distributed by the Ministry of Health to medical facilities in the nation.

The next day, volunteers donated four ventilators to two hospitals: RSPAD Gatot Soebroto and RSPI Sulianti Saroso. The deputy superintendent of the first hospital, Brigadier General Dr. Agus Budi Sulistya, commended Tzu Chi for taking action to aid in the country’s fight against the pandemic. “Our frontline medical workers really need anti-coronavirus medical equipment and supplies now,” he said. “It’s very heartwarming in the face of the pandemic that we’re quick to show our care for each other.”

Tzu Chi Indonesia purchased 385 ventilators from China, 355 of which had been donated by early October to various hospitals. The equipment has been a great help to the medical facilities. A ventilator is an important device for treating COVID-19 patients who are in critical condition. It’s thanks to Tzu Chi headquarters in Taiwan and volunteers in China that Tzu Chi Indonesia was able to make the purchase.

By early October, Tzu Chi Indonesia had donated medical equipment and supplies to over 1,330 hospitals and other organizations in the country.

Military personnel in Medan, the capital of North Sumatra Province, prepare to deliver Tzu Chi aid supplies to people in their homes. This door-to-door distribution was undertaken to avoid the gathering of crowds at a distribution venue. Chen Jun-bin
Volunteers and police officers in Bekasi, West Java, cross a wooden bridge to deliver daily necessities to residents of Cikarang on May 13. A thousand boxes of supplies were distributed on this day.

Nationwide large-scale distributions

In April, large-scale social restrictions were put in place in some areas in the nation. Leisure venues were forced to close their doors, social assemblies of more than five people were prohibited, and school was suspended. Citizens other than government employees and essential workers had to work at home. App-based ride-hailing ojek (motorcycle taxis), a popular form of transport and delivery service in the Greater Jakarta area, were prohibited from transporting passengers and were only allowed to transport goods. Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim festival that fell in May this year, was postponed to the end of the year to prevent massive numbers of people from the Greater Jakarta area from returning home for the religious holiday. Such movement would only exacerbate the spread of COVID-19.

Indonesia has a population of 267 million, nearly 10 percent of which live below the poverty line. The economic situation of the country worsened after the large-scale social restrictions were imposed. Some companies had difficulty staying afloat, massive layoffs followed, and employees were forced to take unpaid leaves of absence. Those running roadside stalls and motorcycle taxi drivers also saw a big drop in their incomes.

In Karimun, located in the Riau Islands Province, buses were forbidden to take full loads of passengers so that social distancing guidelines could be maintained. Bus drivers lost as much as 70 percent of their incomes as a result. International airports and ports in Papua, the easternmost province of Indonesia, were temporarily closed. Porters’ and taxi drivers’ incomes there dropped to zero.

To help ease the economic hardship caused by the coronavirus, Tzu Chi Indonesia first moved up payments of financial aid to its long-term care recipients, and provided two months’ worth of aid instead of one. Then volunteers started working with the military, police, and local governments to distribute food to the underprivileged. Every package delivered included five kilograms (11 pounds) of rice, one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of sugar, ten packets of instant noodles, and other items. There were also a consolation letter from Dharma Master Cheng Yen and a flyer containing health information about COVID-19. In addition to distributions to the general public, bulk supplies were provided to organizations.

The distributions were conducted in accordance with local government regulations to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Residents in some areas didn’t have to go out to obtain their supplies. Instead, military and police personnel delivered the goods to them by motorcycle. Commercial motorcycle taxis were also employed to deliver supplies door-to-door.

As the death toll climbed, funeral service personnel were overwhelmed by their workloads. They had to bury dozens of COVID-19 victims every day. “We are about to enter the Ramadan period,” said a funeral home driver in tears. “We want to be able to celebrate it with our families too. We implore everyone to stay home as much as possible to prevent more large-scale infections. We have family too, and we have our lives to live. The way things are now is not what we want.”

On April 21, before the arrival of Ramadan on April 24, Tzu Chi worked with the presidential office and held a distribution of goods for funeral service workers as a way to extend care to them. The event was held at a cemetery. Six hundred packages of goods were delivered to the venue, some of which were further sent out to two more spots. The event, captured on video and made into a short film by the Presidential Secretariat, was deeply moving. Presidential Secretariat head Heru Budi Hartono said that he hoped that funeral service workers would feel the government’s and Tzu Chi’s care for them through the distribution.

On June 12, a team of Tzu Chi volunteers and Navy personnel sailed on board the warship KRI Makassar-590 to Madura Strait. They were on a mission to distribute daily necessities to fishermen from Bulak and Kenjeran, in Surabaya, and from Madura, off the northeastern coast of Java.

The volunteers had boarded the warship earlier that morning at six, bringing with them 2,600 boxes of necessities. When they arrived at their destination for the distribution, hundreds of fishing boats approached the warship. The fishermen began boarding the ship in an orderly fashion to obtain their share of the supplies. Aid recipients broke into happy smiles, offering profuse thanks for the goods. Mat, one of the fishermen, said, “I hope all those who have helped us will be amply rewarded for their good deeds.”

Also present at the event were representatives from the East Java provincial government and police, including Governor Khofifah Indar Parawansa. Heru Kusmanto, the commander of the Indonesian Navy Fleet Command II, said during a speech that fishery is an economic mainstay of East Java Province and that they hoped to help local fishermen ride out the pandemic via the distribution.

As of early October, Tzu Chi Indonesia had distributed more than 419,700 packages of daily necessities in the hope of helping Indonesians through the economic challenges posed by COVID-19.

Suryana, with his family around him, opens a box of food from Tzu Chi. He is a farmer living in Sukabumi, West Java. Precautionary measures enforced by the government to countervail the coronavirus made it harder to sell his vegetables. The gift from Tzu Chi would help him and his family weather the pandemic.

We’re all Indonesians

Tzu Chi Indonesia’s anti-coronavirus endeavors have been widely reported in the nation’s media. On April 14, Kompas TV (a national private television network owned by Kompas Gramedia, Indonesia’s largest media conglomerate) interviewed several Tzu Chi volunteers online during its eight o’clock prime-time slot. The volunteers included Hong Tjhin (陳豐靈), CEO of DAAI TV Indonesia, Tonny Christianto, the superintendent of Indonesia Tzu Chi Great Love Hospital, Freddy Ong (王煇勵), the director of Indonesia Tzu Chi Great Love School, and Gandhi Sulistyanto, from Sinar Mas Group.

Patricia Susanto, the host of the TV program, introduced Tzu Chi by saying that the foundation has been helping people in Indonesia for 27 years and that the purpose of the TV program was to help people better understand the four missions of Tzu Chi—charity, medicine, education, and culture. Hong Tjhin shared how Master Cheng Yen founded Tzu Chi in Taiwan, and talked about the foundation’s ideal of providing relief to the needy and inspiring the rich to give. He said that many entrepreneurs in Indonesia have, for example, been inspired by the teachings of Master Cheng Yen to give to the underserved.

Susanto then asked why the owners and employees of some companies that already have their own charity foundations still felt the need to volunteer for Tzu Chi. Gandhi Sulistyanto answered that Tzu Chi holds an appeal for those people because, with decades of experience in charity work, the foundation has set up a mature mode of operation, especially in disaster relief work. He went on to say that many businesspeople join Tzu Chi because they can do more than just donating money or material supplies in the foundation—they can also experience and learn from the Great Love spirit of Tzu Chi by personally taking part in the foundation’s work.

A.B. Susanto, a producer at Kompas TV, said on the program, “Dharma Master Cheng Yen reminds us that we can’t predict how long we are going to live, but we can decide if we want to live meaningfully. Have you ever pondered whether you’ve made any contributions to our society? During the pandemic this time, Tzu Chi has worked with many entrepreneurs to give to our country. What they have done is truly admirable.”

After the outbreak of COVID-19, Tzu Chi volunteers and employees in Indonesia quickly arranged for medical equipment and supplies to be sent to various hospitals. The donations from Tzu Chi have earned the appreciation of many medical professionals, their families, and the general public. Many have left thank-you messages on social media for Tzu Chi. Volunteer Jia Wen-yu (賈文玉) even received a message from a friend whom she hadn’t seen in more than 20 years. The message read: “A friend of mine is a physician at a hospital in Jakarta. He had been wearing a raincoat in lieu of a protective gown until his hospital received some protective clothing from Tzu Chi. I’m so thankful to Tzu Chi. I admire the foundation.”

Ade Armando, a professor of communications at the University of Indonesia, posted on a social media platform something to this effect: “I learned from the news in March that some ethnic Chinese entrepreneurs and the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation had raised 500 billion rupiah (US$33,550,400) to help our country battle the pandemic. I’m very touched. Some people have been disseminating hatred, saying that people of Chinese ethnicity who live in Indonesia do not love Indonesia and that they are not Indonesians. But look at how much ethnic Chinese entrepreneurs have done for our country during the pandemic. In fact, it’s not just entrepreneurs—even ordinary Chinese people have been quietly giving of themselves to help. A Chinese, for example, donated a piece of land for the burial of people who have succumbed to COVID-19. I hope that one outcome of the pandemic is that we can all understand and recognize that the ethnic Chinese in our country are also Indonesians.”

Doni Monardo heads the Indonesian National Board for Disaster Management. He is also the chief of the national COVID-19 task force. He had a video created to thank Tzu Chi, in which he pointed out that even before COVID-19 struck, Tzu Chi had built more than 2,000 housing units for victims of an earthquake and tsunami that devastated Palu, the capital of Central Sulawesi Province, in September 2018. He commended the foundation for continually caring for the people in the country. “I thank Dharma Master Cheng Yen and all Tzu Chi volunteers from the bottom of my heart. I expect us to work together in the future in the spirit of Great Love for the causes of humanitarian aid and environmental protection.”

November 2020