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Jakarta Post

Papua lockdown requires extra caution

  • Vidhyandika D. Perkasa


Jakarta   /   Tue, March 31, 2020   /   11:29 am
Papua lockdown requires extra caution Sentani Airport in Jayapura, Papua, on September 18, 2018. (Shutterstock/Widhibek)

As of March 30, more than 1400 confirmed cases of COVID-19 had been recorded in Indonesia with 122 deaths. Among them, seven cases have been recorded in Papua. Given the region's sensitivities and vulnerabilities, efforts to deal with COVID-19 in Papua, such as lockdowns and physical distancing, require special attention and may differ from other regions in Indonesia, as socio-cultural, political and security dimensions must also be taken into account.

If COVID-19 spreads rapidly in Papua, efforts to handle it will become very difficult as it is the poorest province in Indonesia with the lowest human development index (HDI) score. The isolation of the region and the uneven population distribution are major challenges in the provision of public facilities and basic needs. In addition, Papua also lacks sufficient and good quality health facilities and infrastructure.

Considering these circumstances, suggestions have been made by Papuan leaders on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including blocking access to Papua for people from outside Papua. There is a demographic aspect here that forms the basis of why a lockdown is considered so urgent. 

Indigenous Papuans are struggling to maintain their existence as a distinct racial, ethnic and subethnic group amid the swift flow of migration.

There are indications that the total number of migrants has exceeded the number of indigenous Papuans because of various reasons including illness and violence. Because COVID-19 has the potential to bring death to vulnerable age groups, indigenous Papuans are likely to see higher casualties because their socio-economic circumstances are far below those migrant communities.

The sensitive relationship between indigenous Papuans and migrants means there is potential for conflict if the spread of COVID-19 in Papua is not promptly addressed. Migrant communities and security forces could be regarded as the source of the virus as they move in and out of Papua. The first case of COVID-19 in Papua was recorded in Merauke, with the patient having traveled from Bogor, West Java.

Proposed lockdown

The question is, can the limited health facilities in Papua ensure all segments of society are treated fairly? Who will be prioritized to receive care: indigenous Papuans or migrants? In this context, a lockdown can be interpreted as an effort to stop migration to Papua to protect indigenous Papuans. The proposed lockdown was finally approved by Papua Governor Lukas Enembe and was described as “social restrictions”. However, it was opposed by both Home Minister Tito Karnavian and President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. There appears to have been a misunderstanding regarding the regulations on who has the authority to impose a lockdown.

Beyond the legal aspects, several other aspects need attention. First, as the proposed social restrictions only cover sea and air transportation, there are no clear limitations on land-based or inter-district mobility. Even if restrictions on land-based travel are put in place, they will be difficult to implement given Papua’s geography.

The idea of a lockdown also does not take into account customary rights and customary land, and so will be met with resistance. Many Papuans earn a living by farming or hunting across unclear boundaries. This restriction will threaten the ability for Papuans to make ends meet.

Secondly, there are indications the lockdown was motivated by anti-immigrant sentiment, even though the more rational reason to enforce the lockdown is because of the limited resources and health facilities. Restrictions on travel will also have economic impacts, and a lack access to basic needs can lead to conflict.

Third, there is an assumption the lockdown is aimed at preventing security forces from entering Papua, even though they support health workers and help provide stability. Among the security forces’ main roles is to maintain order in the event there is a shortage of basic needs. However, because of the disharmony between indigenous Papuans and security forces owing to alleged human rights violations, there is likely to be resistance to the authorities’ handling of COVID-19.

Fourth, the lockdown will be followed by calls for physical distancing, which will impact education. Internet access in Papua is still limited, meaning e-learning will be difficult to implement. Fifth, Jokowi’s massive infrastructure development program has been hampered because the supply of materials and construction have stopped. Sixth, it is necessary to anticipate the impact of a lockdown and physical distancing on people displaced by conflict in Nduga, who are especially vulnerable to Covid-19.

The challenges of social distancing

In addition to the issues enforcing a lockdown, implementing physical distancing measures in Papua will also be an arduous task. First, physical distancing is a foreign idea to many indigenous Papuans who lack knowledge on public health.

Calls for physical distancing could be interpreted as a systematic effort to split apart clan or tribal ties, which are very strong in Papua. Clan ties help guarantee collective survival. Without adequate explanation, the implementation of physical distancing measures will ignite suspicion.

Second, the nature of Papuan society poses another challenge. Papuans commonly live in groups in one big house called a honai, living a life of communalism. This communalism also relates to the search for collective security. Indigenous Papuans live under the threat of friction with other clans, migrants and security forces.

The “big man system” of Papuan society also requires that a tribal leader maintain a close relationship with their community members and exhibit leadership characteristics such generosity, good communication and and bravery.

Philosophically, Papuans also recognize the importance of maintaining balance, health and peace between fellow humans and the spiritual realm. For this reason, they engage in many activities that involve the masses, such as stone-burning ceremonies and tribal warfare. Failing to engage in these activities is believed to bring bad karma, illness or death.

To handle COVID-19 in Papua, several measures are vital. Coordination between the central, provincial and district governments must be strengthened, mapping of the most vulnerable groups must be carried out to ensure they are given assistance and education must be provided to prevent the spread of disinformation regarding Covid-19 with the help of local leaders. Done right, the handling of COVID-19 can be used as an opportunity to help peace-building efforts among all elements of society in Papua.


The writer is a researcher in the department of politics and international relations at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta. The views expressed are personal.



Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.