COVID-19 and volcanoes looming over Indonesia’s future
by Ati Nurbaiti

Alert levels are up for Mount Merapi in Central Java and Sinabung in North Sumatra. Many towns and villages around the volcanoes have been evacuated, but some residents resist and continue to farm and tend to their livestock. For children, distance learning in reception centres is a source of stress. Food supplies are an issue.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) – Active volcanoes are again threatening Indonesia amid the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic and large-scale flooding.

Various natural phenomena, like the COVID-19 pandemic, are turning lives upside down, breaking the daily flow of life and threatening a number of scheduled events, such local elections, set to take place next month.

Mount Merapi in central Java and the Sinabung volcano in North Sumatra have the authorities on maximum alert following recent devastating eruptions.

Since early October, people and livestock have been evacuated from the towns and villages that dot the landscape around Merapi, on the island of Java, one of the most densely populated places on earth with 140 million people.

Volunteers are still going house to house to convince the most recalcitrant to leave, given the high risk of volcanic eruptions.

Nevertheless, for some life goes on regularly three kilometres from the volcano, with locals engaged in the usual activities.

"Some people continue to go out into the fields or tend to their animals,” said 60-year-old Sunar to local media.

Far fewer people have sought refuge this year than in 2010, when there was another major exodus. Many villages buried by dust at the time have been relocated and those who remain want to go on with their lives.

As a result of the pandemic, children are forced to follow online classes, which is hard on their concentration.

Many centres and camps for displaced people have wi-fi, ventilators and access to TV to facilitate distance learning, but there is no shortage of issues.

As more people and families arrive, tension levels increase over supplies of food and essentials.

"People eat three times a day", and we can’t give them instant noodles all the time,” said a local village chief.

Meanwhile, police have begun training 3,500 people who will man evacuation operations. Health facilities are being set up and medicines stockpiled, especially for burns.

This work is made more complicated by the novel coronavirus pandemic that requires dedicated treatment facilities to prevent the spread of the virus.

Amid all this, Indonesia is scheduled to hold local elections. To avoid further problems ahead of the December vote, polling stations in the areas most at risk were moved to reception centres, Yulianto Sudrajat, head of the Central Java electoral commission, said.

In North Sumatra, the source of concern is the Sinabung volcano, which has been spewing ash and dust for 2.5 km into the atmosphere.

Residents within a six-kilometre radius from the crater have been forced to leave their homes. Other evacuation operations might be necessary in the coming days. For experts, the problem could go on a long time, even years like in 2013 to 2018.

Residents have been advised to "ensure supplies of drinking water and remove volcanic ash from their roofs to prevent collapses””

Indonesia, which is located on the so-called Ring of Fire around the Pacific Ocean, regularly experiences deadly earthquakes and tsunamis.

In 2018, a 7.5 quake caused a tsunami that left 4,300 dead or missing. In 2004, a 9.1 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra unleashed a mega tsunami that killed 220,000 people in the Indian Ocean region, 170,000 in Indonesia alone.