Eggi Arguni leads the diagnostics team in our Yogyakarta project.
In more normal times she co-ordinates the lab provided by the Tahija Foundation in which we measure the degree of Wolbachia establishment in the local Aedes Aegypti populations as well as analysing blood samples of local patients to measure the incidence of dengue.
But these are not normal times.
Eggi has taken up a different temporary role. Her lab recently began – at the request of the Ministry of Health – examining oropharyngeal and nasopharyngeal swab samples of patients suspected of having contracted COVID-19.
When I speak to Eggi she is tired. Hers is one of only three labs doing this kind of testing in Yogyakarta. She is managing two daily shifts for a handful of staff and volunteers who examine up to 160 swab samples every day.
“A number of the staff are volunteers. The team is close. They are supportive of each other. Because of the heavy protective gear they are wearing, it gets very tiring. We need to make sure they are not working for too long at one time.”
Thankfully, the lab and its staff are well equipped for the job. While WMP field work is temporarily paused, it makes sense for these resources to be utilised to help combat this public health crisis.
“The team is just happy to be able to contribute on behalf of their community. They are glad they are able to help. They want to help. The energy in the lab is strong and there is a real sense of purpose and pride.”
Eggi says some technicians doing similar work in other labs are being prevented from returning to their villages. Their communities are turning them away for fear of infection and they are having to find alternative accommodation while they continue their work.
Thankfully this stigmatism isn’t directed towards the WMP team. However, Eggi’s lab has found it hard to find a laundry service willing to launder their PPE (the specially designed protective lab coats and masks worn by the staff). At first nobody would take them, until eventually a provider understood there was little risk in washing the gear.
The mood in Yogya is pensive. Like most of the world, there’s a lot of uncertainty. The time it will take to emerge from the crisis continues to be a day by day prospect. For now, what is clear is that only with the very best resources and the highest levels of expertise will there be any prospect of an end any time soon. It’s heartening and inspiring to know WMP in Yogyakarta is on the front line of the fight.
Working in pairs, teams of epidemiologists usually interviewed 3 or 4 patients a day, sometimes for up to 2 hours for each interview. They'd build a calendar of around 2-3 weeks, documenting the patient’s recent movements to develop a list of close contacts.
“It was emotional for us. And even more so for the patients.”
The greatest anxiety for the patients Quyen spoke with was driven by the possibility that they’d spread the virus. They feared this far more than the illness itself. At the time of their conversations, it was often too early to tell for sure whether their family members, friends or colleagues were infected.
“They’re in isolation. Though the government gives them free treatment and food, all they could do was follow the health staff’s guidance and wait for the test result of the people they’d been in contact with. It’s like waiting for the result of an exam. The people felt a lot of stress about that.”
Quyen’s experience showed her the importance of collaboration during a crisis. Vietnam’s relatively successful response to the pandemic has required input from a diversity of industries and experts as well as cooperation from the wider community. Quyen witnessed a unified operation between the army, police, border control, health departments, data analysis, volunteers and business people. She saw that when people come together – when they learn from each other – they are far more effective in the fight against the spread of disease.
In La Paz, a number of WMP diagnostic staff are working to process COVID-19 samples inside the state lab. Our partnership with the Ministry of Health means we use the same lab which is equipped with the resources to contend with such a crisis.
The staff are working every day processing the samples. A couple of weeks ago they were working 2 shifts – driven by a willingness to help protect their community. But it was too much, and they got burned out. They have since reduced their hours to ‘more regular’ full-time shifts.
The energy inside the state lab for diagnostics is challenging, there is a lot of anxiety and tension. The staff don't do this work because they are told to, they do it because they want to. As the work continues they will need ongoing support from colleagues and friends.