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Urban Chat: Social distancing. Societal dilemma

Lynda Ibrahim

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Fri, March 20, 2020  /  11:52 am
Urban Chat: Social distancing. Societal dilemma

The ravaging of COVID-19 across the globe has brought an order of social distancing, especially in virus-hit areas. (shutterstock/-)

Raise your hand if for the past week you’ve worked from home, suffered a cancelation and halted activities.

Since leaving the corporate world in 2007, I’ve become so used to working alone from home that I actually tend to look forward to outside meetings. The human interactions are intervals in my solitary work to keep me stimulated, updated and sane.

Sure, I have regular Skype sessions with clients overseas for my business consulting job, but I don't find the interactions as engaging as the direct ones. Or maybe I'm just inherently a people person.

But the ravaging of COVID-19 across the globe has brought an order of social distancing, especially in virus-hit areas, and in turn has brought dilemma, notably to close-knit societies like Indonesia.

Regardless of native groups or religions, Indonesians love to congregate for rituals – birth, the first time a baby's feet touches ground, circumcision, the first time a girl menstruates, graduation, the first time a friend receives a salary after securing a job, weddings, baby showers, housewarmings, funerals and post-funeral rites.

Traditionally these rituals are never private – extended families, friends, neighbors and colleagues are often on the invitation list. "The more we can share, the better" is an axiom implanted in Indonesians' collective mind from an early age, for better or worse.

These days, it's rather for worse. Countless weddings, monumental birthdays and anniversaries to be held this year have been in the planning stage since 2019, if not longer.

From the several gatherings here that I saw until a week ago, multiple precautions were taken – face masks, thermoguns, hand sanitizer, alcohol-based wipes. Some parties even forbade physical touching altogether.

But at least the gatherings went on for a while. A new situation emerged this week as many municipalities including Jakarta moved to close schools and recommend that residents stay home and practice social distancing if they need to step out. Now, going ahead with planned events will be seen as not only harmful, but also arrogant – like daring the virus to test its power to infect the guests.

A couple of local celebrities announced they had postponed their wedding. From contacts in the food and beverage industry, I've started hearing about severe reductions in the scale of booked events or complete cancellations, from both corporate and personal clientele.

A friend whose mom has run a very successful catering business for decades is already getting cancellations for Ramadhan's popular fast-breaking gatherings and Eid's open houses in April and May.

But it's not easy for Indonesians, who take comfort in being huddled together, to go through this mild isolation period, as apparent from the torrent of moaning coming through various networking platforms.

Many have complained that working from home is unproductive because of distractions, something that someone like me, who has done it for almost 13 years, can attest to. Some argued that during this difficult time one should be surrounded with as many familiar faces as possible.

The struggle is only heightened when religion is thrown into the mix. Pretty much all state-recognized religions in Indonesia advocate regular congregations to strengthen faith and brotherhood. Just take this week – there was an 8,000-strong Tablighi Jama'at in Gowa, South Sulawesi and a 6,000-strong archbishop ordainment mass in Ruteng, East Nusa Tenggara.

It didn't matter that a congregation of the very same Islamic group in Malaysia less than two weeks ago resulted in around 500 people being infected, mosque closures in Singapore and eventually a nationwide lockdown in Malaysia. Appeals from authorities weren't heeded until 8,000 people had assembled and a video of a preacher smugly belittling the danger circulated widely.

Now the 8,000 people are reportedly quarantined under military supervision pending checks with medical workers – already lower in number and thinning in energy from weeks of managing COVID-19 patients.

Unfortunately that's not the case with Ruteng – the mass went on, proved by, ironically, live Facebook videos. Many of my Catholic friends were enraged that such folly went on, considering the Pope himself has instructed churches not to hold public masses. So far East Nusa Tenggara has been blessed with zero cases, but that advantage may just change after this event.

As COVID-19 deaths started occurring here, I couldn't stop thinking about how Indonesians, across religions and traditions, would conduct themselves.

The Italian government has managed to order closed funerals, with a priest giving rites from a safe distance and often no family members in attendance. Not knowing enough of their funeral processions, I wonder if Christian, Hindu and Buddhist Indonesians can adjust their rituals?

With a sinking feeling I realize that Indonesian Muslims may just pose the hardest obstacle as the religion clearly considers taking care of the dead, especially performing a public prayer, as fardhu kifayyah (an obligation for society).

How do you tell Muslim Indonesians that they may no longer be able to perform that duty if the deceased died of COVID-19? Even now, as Saudi Arabia has set an example to close down mosques and Indonesia's renowned Istiqlal Mosque, located just a stone’s throw from the Presidential Palace, has agreed to not hold Friday prayers for two weeks, there's no guarantee all Indonesian mosques will follow suit – brazenly side-stepping the fact that in Islam, when you perform public prayers you are mandated to stand so close your shoulders should touch each other.

And the heightened situation has only taken place for less than two weeks. I can't imagine what will happen if we get to the point of a longer quarantine or total lockdown. I don't know how many Indonesians can withstand the pressure of not physically being in a collective group with all its demands and benefits.

Social distancing is a problem for many around the world, hunkered down from an unprecedented public health emergency. But in good old Indonesia, more than anything, it is inherently a societal dilemma. (ste)


– Lynda Ibrahim is a Jakarta-based writer with
a penchant for purple, pussycats and pop culture.




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