Surprise Swab Test
Swab tests were conducted under irregular circumstances on activists in East Kalimantan. Some think it was a ruse to halt their advocacy activities.
THE activities of the East Kalimantan environmental forum group, Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia (Walhi) ground to a complete halt since Friday, July 31. The gate to their office in Jalan Gitar, in Dadi Mulya, Samarinda, now sports a bronze padlock the size of an adult fist. The inhabitants have dispersed after a Covid-19 swab test incident two days prior.
“Nobody’s there,” said East Kalimantan Mining Advocacy Network (Jatam) activist, Pradharma Rupang, pointing to the Walhi premises on Thursday, August 6. The East Kalimantan Walhi and Jatam secretariates are neighbors sharing a party wall. The adjoined rented facility has a 1.5-meter tall iron fence surrounding it.
On July 28, the working group known as the Pokja 30, which is based in the Jatam premises, received a surprise visit from the Samarinda health office. One of the guests was a young female named Silvi. Silvi told the activists she would test them for Covid-19 using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method on their sputum taken with a swab from either their throats or their nostrils. The reason, she said, was the vicinity had developed into a new contagion cluster. Silvi, said Rupang, claimed she had visited every other house in the neighborhood to conduct swab tests.
The seven people who happened to be in the Pokja 30 secretariate gave permission for swabs to be done on themselves. Two were Jatam managers, one was a Pokja 30 volunteer, three were journalists, and one was a visitor. Silvi and her two colleagues took out equipment and proceeded to test. The three officers merely wore face masks, gloves, and face shields, but had no hazmat suits on.
Rupang recalled, after taking swabs from the seven persons in the Pokja 30 secretariate that day, Silvi and her two colleagues then moved to the East Kalimantan Walhi secretariate. There they tested Yohana Tiko, East Kalimantan Walhi’s head director; Fathul Huda Wiyashadi; Bernard Marbun; and Bolang. The officers promised they would send back the test results within three or four days.
The following day, Silvi returned. This time with a crowd of officers driving four vehicles, two of which bore red (government office) number plates. Officers included members from the Samarinda Regional Disaster Mitigation Office. They wore face masks and rubber gloves, but again, no one wore hazmat suits.
In a suprise announcement, Silvi declared the group had come to report the swab test results from the previous day, namely that three of the Walhi activists were found Covid-19 positive. The three were Tiko, Bernard, and Fathul. Fathul is a public lawyer who offers advocacy services at the Samarinda Legal Aid Institute.
That annoucement surprised the activists, since to their knowledge, swab results take three or four days as conveyed by Silvi herself. “How could the results have come out so fast? Don’t swabs take at least three days to show results? On the other hand, I never go anywhere,” said Fathul.
The officers promptly sprayed the entire Walhi and Pokja 30 premises with disinfectant. According to Fathul, three male officers acted suspiciously. They entered the office area and inspected every square inch of the room, once in a while taking quick snapshots using their cellphones.
The three men wore civilian clothes, had ripped physiques and sported crewcut hair style. They insisted on going into every single room under the pretext of seeking out possible persons who had not done a swab test. Feeling something was off, Fathul demanded to see the test results in writing and the officers’ authorization letter. “They replied the swab results would be submitted back eventually,” he said.
According to Fathul, the officers urged the three activists to go to hospital for quarantine. The three refused. Another request to vacate the Walhi premises came the following day, through the village head, who claimed he was leery of having three Covid-19 positive persons in the neighborhood.
Tarmiji, the head of neighborhood unit 33 in Dadi Mulya area, said indeeed he asked the activists to quarantine themselves. He insisted, saying they needed to do so to halt the spread of Covid-19 in the vicinity. “I received information about the Covid-19 positives from the officers intending to pick the three up,” said Tarmiji. Yet he said nobody in the neighborhood had been subjected to swab tests as Silvi had claimed, aside from the Walhi people.
Nearing sundown, scores of police, members of the public order police, village officials, and officers of the Samarinda health office crowded the Walhi premises. They intended to pick up the three who had been declared Covid-19 infected. Again the three refused. “We did so under the consideration no one could show us the swab results nor an official warrant letter,” said Fathul.
Things became even more edgy when scores of people started to gather outside the Walhi office. Some in the crowd even tried to provoke persecution against the three. Not wishing to let things turn ugly, Fathul and his two colleagues relented. They complied to the order to go to the Abdul Moeis Hospital for quarantine.
Once at the hospital, an odd thing occurred. The crowd of officers abandoned the three in the hospital parking lot. The people in the four vehicles one by one disappeared. Feeling confused, Fathul decided to take initiative by asking the hospital to see his swab test results. “We simply did not want them to be quarantined in hospital before we were shown the results,” said Yohana Tiko.
Because things were so uncertain, the three decided they could simply leave the hospital premises. Abdul Moeis Hospital Director, dr Syarifah Rahimah Aydrus, claimed to not know about swab tests conducted on the activists. “Our position is only to accept patients declared Covid-19 positive. Questions concerning the swab tests should be directed to the East Kalimantan Province (Covid-19) task force,” she said.
The Samarinda health office refused to provide explanation. According to Chief of Disease Control and Eradication of the Samarinda Health Office, dr Osa Rafshodia, officers are not compelled to show the results of swab tests. “The protocol is clearly outlined in Health Minister Regulation No. 9/2020. There is no need for further explanation,” she said. Samarinda Health Office Chief dr Ismed Kusasih admitted Silvi to being his subordinate. “Indeed, she’s a member of my staff and is in the Samarinda Covid 19 response acceleration task force,” he said.
Considering the irregularities in the case, Pradharma Rupang guessed the tests were simply a ruse to gag the activists. In the past three months, several unknown persons would often look in to watch their activities. According to Rupang, they had started being monitored ever since the Samarinda Legal Aid Institute began advocacy for seven Papuan activists and students. “The people spying would often walk to and fro around our building,” he said.
The Samarindah Legal Aid Institute is also in the Jatam office and is part of the Pokja 30 network. The legal counsels were building their case for the court trial of the seven Papuan activists accused of treason. Fathul and Bernard Marbun are two of the seven. “It’s very possible this is the core reason why the whole thing happened. After all, no one else was tested except the people in our office,” said Rupang.
Refuting Silvi’s announcement from the health office, coffee stall owner Acil Salmiah, whose kiosk stands close to the East Kalimantan Walhi premises, said he was unaware of any mass swab test conducted on citizens in the neighborhood. Neither did he hear about any member of the community becoming Covid-19 positive prior to the incident at the Walhi office. “Our residents think our little village is safe. The swab test has never been conducted here,” he said.