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Jakarta Post

‘Pasrah’ as ‘preparedness discourse’ in new normal

  • Dyah Pitaloka, Gita Nasution and Erlin Erlina


Jakarta   /   Fri, June 26, 2020   /   02:15 pm
‘Pasrah’ as ‘preparedness discourse’ in new normal Peeking out: A woman looks out from her shop at the fruit and vegetable market in Pasar Minggu, South Jakarta, which has been closed in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. The Jakarta administration has closed dozens of markets for three days after a number of vendors tested positive for COVID-19. (JP/P.J. Leo)

The novel coronavirus travels unequally, leaving marginalized people to suffer the most from the pandemic. The virus spreads quickly and is transmittable easily in spaces where you do not have approximate distance with others, such as in a crowded house. 

It also spreads in situations where you do not have access to clean drinking water or water to wash your hands and to clean your body – the preventive behavior that is recommended. Spaces where you do not have access to the basic infrastructure of food. 

In addition, those living at the margins must endure the effects of policies to deal with the virus, such as lockdown, quarantine, physical distancing and travel restrictions. Financial constraints force these people to keep working outside their homes. Poverty prevents them from complying with the prescribed health norms, including working from home, washing their hands and body with soap regularly after outdoor activities, consuming healthy foods, getting enough rest and regular exercise.  

Structural barriers leave them with no other choice but to accept their fate and pasrah (surrender) to this external locus of control, as anthropologist Koentjaraningrat put it. Pasrah becomes their source of resilience to deal with the uncertainty caused by COVID-19 and the impacts of the intervention policies. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) in its April 13 briefing asserted that countries with lower numbers of cases could begin easing restrictions. However, social distancing and handwashing must continue for an indefinite period. With so much at stake, the government eased restrictions and allowed economic and social activities to resume under “new normal” protocols. 

To support business continuation during the pandemic, the Health Ministry issued on May 20 guidance for the mitigation and control of COVID-19 in office and industrial workplace settings.

The National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) emphasizes that people should follow the new health protocols to protect them from contagion. 

To minimize risks and to stay productive, people must be prepared and ensure that they have the necessary survival items packed in their “COVID-19 emergency bag”, such as a jacket and appropriate clothing, bottle of water, hand sanitizer, tissue, masks, disinfectant spray, eating utensils, folded reusable bag, multivitamins and prayer mat and gown. 

Under the “new normal”, pasrah shifts in meaning. Concerns, however, have mounted since the country’s COVID-19 transmission curve has not yet flattened. In fact, as soon as the government eased restrictions, single-day infection cases rose to 993 on June 6, and exceeded 1,000 on average in the following days until now. 

The relaxation has unsurprisingly sparked the question as to whether the transition to the new normal will put people’s health and safety at stake. However, despite its risks, the new normal policy has been implemented to reboot the slumping economy. 

In this pandemic, individuals have no ability to control the risks and their own safety. The public resorts to pasrah as culturally situated practice and core element in their preparedness strategy to deal with the new environment and to adapt to the new normal. This cultural concept connects people and helps them comprehend the situation and manage the “cosmology episode”, first coined by Karl E. Weick in 1993, in which they will live confusion and doubt – not knowing what is happening and why. 

The new normal has given a new nuance to Indonesians in exercising and understanding pasrah. While before the “new normal”, with pasrah in mind the poor were the ones who braved COVID-19, during the “new normal” the middle-class gradually follows suit. They are more aware of hygiene practices to prevent the risks of infection and are more likely to comply with the health protocols because they have the resources to do so than the unfortunate group. 

However, despite the efforts the middle-class in fact is structurally pushed to bear pasrah in mind, especially if their jobs are related to essential services and no longer have the luxury to work from home. Pasrah during the “new normal” for the middle-class is “normal” for the poor. Of course, health workers are consistently compelled to pasrah no matter what “normal” situation may mean. 

Pasrah shows a paradox of existence in destitution in which the poor actually employ a fully human initiative and agency by constructing new social and spiritual connectedness. But ironically, this “new normal” may create violence for some more groups. The new normal narrative for some only shows how the health protocols of COVID-19 leaves them struggling in a very new, risky and difficult social situation. 

Governing the risks through the idiom of pasrah indicates the limitations of biomedical care, which concerns primarily the discipline of the social body. Yet, that political and economic arrangement has triggered people to take actions and resilient to that social inequality, structural violence and poverty. 

For them, pasrah is disguised resistance as they look for a new form to “fit in a space” of the “new normal” arrangement while searching for opportunities for economic resources and for survival. For some others, the “new normal” has structurally positioned them to surrender and receptive, but it will also transform into resistance. 

In terms of structural violence, the pandemic shows how the disease has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives around the world. The pandemic has not only impacted the life of the poor but also shaped the intersubjective individuals. In this sense, self-care management of the pasrah becomes meaningful but understood as a form of life associated with the market and competition (in economic liberalism), as written by Ben Anderson in 2012


Dyah Pitaloka is research scholar at Ronin Institute, Montclair, New Jersey. Erlin Erlina is Ph.D Candidate, Research School of Humanities and Arts, College of Arts & Social Sciences, Australian National University. Gita Nasution is PhD candidate at Department of Anthropology, School of Culture and Language, College of Asia & Pacific, Australian National University.


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