Strangers and Aliens: Covid in the Slums

by Rahma

We had been waiting for months for news about when we might be able to receive a Covid vaccine. The elderly, health workers, government offices, and teachers were the first groups to be vaccinated. My husband and I are teachers, but the free school that we run in our slum community is not a “real” school, so we could not qualify to receive vaccines. 

For eleven months, we opened House of Hope during the pandemic– praying that the benefits to the community were greater than the risks presented by meeting in person. Sickness in slums is a constant affair; there are always children and adults sick with diarrhea, coughs, colds, fevers, sore throats. Normally when someone is sick with some or all of those symptoms, possible diagnoses include: the common flu, dengue fever, typhoid, or TB. Now we added “Covid-19” to the possible list.  

On Wednesday of our last week of classes for the year, my husband received a phone call from the government leader in his mom’s neighborhood. We had registered with this leader two weeks prior, hoping that one day we would be eligible to be vaccinated. “You can go today,” the man said. “To the police center.  You have ten minutes. There are only six vaccines left.”

Talk about last minute warning. We changed our clothes (out of slum clothes, into presentable vaccination clothes), grabbed our important documents (government ID, marriage certificate, my passport and visa), and jumped on our motorcycle. My husband sped through traffic, and we arrived at the police center perhaps twenty minutes after the phone call.

The police center was celebrating their birthday; in honor of the birthday, they were providing vaccines for the community. 

They looked at our ID cards, accepted my husband’s since he is Indonesian, but rejected me. I could not be vaccinated. I fought back disappointment and consoled myself with knowing that my husband was getting his first jab. Twenty minutes later, we were back on our motorcycle and going home.

Two days later, after numerous phone calls and confirmation from the same government leader near my in-law’s house, I set off by bike to go to the government clinic. This time equipped with a letter from the official, saying I was a resident and lived in the neighborhood. I spent two hours waiting in line with about 100 others– this time to get a swab rapid test in order to be eligible to be vaccinated the following day. After two hours of waiting, it was finally my turn and I presented the letter and my ID card.

“What is this?” the lady said.

“My permanent resident card.”

“We can’t use this number. You don’t have the right number.”  She confirmed with a higher-up and they sent me home.

I fought back angry tears once more. 

In some strange way, I felt like this experience bonded me with our neighbors.  Many of them do not have the proper documentation– not only is it a struggle to get vaccinated, but anything legal is a challenge. Registering for government elementary schools. Making marriage certificates. Or birth certificates. Or government health cards. I have a friend who had to travel 3 hours during labor to return to her home village for an emergency Cesarean.  

Scripture says we are strangers and aliens in this world.  There’s nothing like living somewhere ten years, but getting denied a vaccine to remind one of this truth. No matter how many years I live here, I will always be the “Bule” (pronounced “Boo”+ “lay”). I will always be the white-skinned one, with brown hair instead of black. I cried, not so much because I really wanted a vaccine, but because I wanted to belong. To not feel like an outsider in this land where I have given birth, taught hundreds of children, and planted myself. It just did not seem fair.

The following morning, we biked 55 kilometers round trip to the Zoo (where we were refused entry because of new Covid restrictions and because our ID cards were not from Jakarta).  I knew I was dragging a little bit, but a sudden rainstorm refreshed us and we made it home happily.  After a shower, however, I realized I was feverish. I spent the rest of the day in bed. My husband also started to feel sick. We wondered (Asian style) if it was because of getting rained on. 

The following morning, we got Covid PCR tests. We were positive, along with one of our teammates. We paid to get tested at a private clinic, as trying to get a free PCR from the government clinic is nearly impossible. Officially, our test results should be reported to our government health clinic. Officially, if one of our cases were to deteriorate, they should be responsible to send an ambulance and help us get to a hospital. But because we live in a slum, this is not possible.

If we chose to self-isolate in our sabbath house, in the middle-class neighborhood according to our ID address, the health officials would help us.  But since we would rather be at home in our slum house– where there are neighbors who can shop for us, where there is a field we can walk on and get fresh air, where our pet rabbit is, where we feel more comfortable– there is no government health center to report to. Slums are by definition illegal. We live on “dark land,” without government leadership. Slipping through the cracks of bureaucracy. No one wants to help our neighborhood. 

When we explained to our neighbor about trying to report to the government clinic, she laughed and said: “If we die, they don’t care.” 

And for us it does not really matter. Thankfully, our Covid cases seem mild. We have an oximeter and can self-monitor oxygen levels. We have money to buy vitamins, paracetamol, and nutritious food. We also have health insurance and money in the bank if we needed to check ourselves into a hospital. We have lots of middle-class friends with extra money to send us care packages of food. My kitchen is overflowing with fruit, snacks, honey, and other goodies sent to us– not only from our “rich” friends, but also from our friends in the slum.

But as I hear my neighbors cough, I wonder what they will do if they need to be hospitalized.  I wonder how much money is wasted when they go to a doctor and are given amoxicillin and told they just have “strep throat.”  I know that the official numbers of Covid cases in Indonesia are sky-rocketing, and I know that the real number is likely 20x higher than what is reported.  I feel the injustices of lacking proper ID cards. I feel the struggle of my friends wanting to access free government health care. I sense the denial and optimism of our street, hoping that everyone else just has a “normal cough.”

Lord, protect the most vulnerable.  Have mercy on all those who are sick.  Heal our bodies. Heal our souls.  Come, Lord Jesus.

For the past ten years, living in a slum, I have found solace in the words of Psalm 146.  I read these verses again today and they seem so applicable. My hope is not in princes (or government officials)– my hope is in the Lord. The Lord watches over the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the blind, and the bowed down.  And the Lord watches over the foreigner, too (hey, that’s me!). Praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord, my soul.

I will praise the Lord all my life;
    I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
Do not put your trust in princes,
    in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
    on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God.

He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
    the sea, and everything in them—
    he remains faithful forever.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed
    and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
    the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
    the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the foreigner
    and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
    but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.

 The Lord reigns forever,
    your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord.

~~~~~~~~

Rahma (not her real name) and her husband and two boys have lived and served in a slum in Jakarta for the past ten years. She enjoys learning piano, playing in the rain, and devouring Amy Carmichael books. You can learn more about the organization they serve with at servantsasia.org.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.