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Jakarta Post

Patience tested at Malang's COVID-19 emergency call center

  • Aman Rochman

    The Jakarta Post

Malang   /   Mon, March 23, 2020   /   05:10 pm
Patience tested at Malang's COVID-19 emergency call center Two staffers of the 199 Call Center in Malang, East Java, answer calls from ordinary people seeking information on COVID-19 on Saturday. (JP/Aman Rochman)

Out of the blue, the wailing sound of a siren interrupts the thick silence inside a glass booth used for the 199 Call Center. It is a ringtone rather than the sound of a roving ambulance, signaling another caller is on the public services line.

A person on duty picks up the phone while another monitors on a computer screen all the incoming WhatsApp messages from ordinary people looking for information on COVID-19, which has spread to a number of Indonesian urban centers, including East Java.

Such is the buzz that the call center of the Malang Health Agency generates, despite only setting up a local COVID-19 mitigation task force just a few weeks ago.

Before the coronavirus crisis erupted this past month, workers at the call center would usually get an average of 30 calls and/or WhatsApp messages per day. But since the pandemic hit Indonesian shores, the call center now processes anywhere from 50 to 80 calls per day, on top of the usual stream of WhatsApp messages.

The call center workers often get asked a wide array of questions, from how to identify and prevent COVID-19 symptoms and making judgment calls about possible hoaxes on social media, to queries about the medical examination process and sites in Malang that provide such services.

“Over the past five days, our team has received a total of 140 calls and messages daily from people seeking to dispel rumors that the city administration was closing all access in and out of Malang, and whether the emergency status for the region made it so it was declared a 'red zone',” said Dhana Setiawan, coordinator of the COVID-19 mitigation task force’s 199 Call Center, on Sunday.

East Java Governor Khofifah Indar Parawansa declared on Friday a state of emergency in the province in an effort to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. Malang and Surabaya were also declared "red zones", with 175 people in Surabaya and 74 others in Malang suspected of having contracted COVID-19.

Besides functioning as an information hub on the COVID-19 pandemic, the call center also acted as a first responders’ line in the event of actual emergencies, with ambulance facilities and 15 personnel comprising doctors, nurses, midwives and public officers just a call away, Dhana said.

“If we get information that sounds like someone is exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, we will forward the call to the medical treatment teams at Dr. Anwar Hospital, the Dr. Soepraoen Army Hospital, Lavalette Hospital or the Panti Waluyo Sawahan Hospital in Malang,” Dhana said. “We inform hospitals that can most easily reach the area [of the distress call], as our own team is not trained to diagnose suspected cases of COVID-19.”

Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, coughs, chills and difficulty breathing, but suspected cases can also be tagged based on history of travel to regions or countries with widespread cases, or for having close contact with confirmed patients.

For the call center workers themselves, the job can sometimes bring them to wit’s end.

“Because of all this commotion with the coronavirus outbreak, people sometimes ask whether we stock masks or hand sanitizers, and where to get them. Some may even ask if we sell them ourselves,” said one call center worker. “But really, it’s the repeat questions that do us in.”

Some people like to ask repeatedly when a medical dispatch will arrive, while others ask for emergency services without disclosing that the information they provide is gleaned from a secondhand source.

“We have to remain patient and ensure that some of these incidents are actually happening. Our goal with the 199 Call Center team is to provide information that will keep heads cool and people thinking rationally as they get to grips with the COVID-19 outbreak,” said Rona Pujiastuti, a 23-year-old staffer with expertise in midwifery.