The Jakarta Post
In times of panic, people may forget about others and focus only on themselves as they try to cope with fear. This includes in Jakarta, where humanity and conscience appeared to wane after the discovery of cases of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
People hoarded groceries and hygiene goods, including instant noodles, antiseptic wipes and face masks until there was almost nothing left in the market for others in need. Where there were supplies, the prices had skyrocketed. Some even took advantage of the outbreak, allegedly manufacturing low-quality illegal masks and intentionally stockpiling hundreds of boxes of real masks to create artificial scarcity, in various cases being investigated by the police.
Prying public curiosity about the disease has also impinged upon the privacy of patients, as people scrambled to get information of any kind, including through the patients’ social media accounts, and later spread their profile images and personal details on online messaging apps.
Yet a few conscious people have been trying to maintain humanity in Greater Jakarta amid mounting public fears. One of them is Erwin, a 60-year-old grocer in Teluk Gong, North Jakarta.
Speaking to The Jakarta Post on Friday, Erwin said many customers had rushed into his minimarket in a stampede seeking to purchase all available food from the shelves in bulk, leaving him in extreme confusion.
Seeing customers scooping up boxes of instant noodles, bottles of cooking oil and cans of biscuits last Monday, Erwin’s 57-year-old wife, Susanna Indrayani, ordered them to put everything back except a maximum of five of each item.
Some customers tried to insist upon exceeding the limit. However, Susanna stood by her rule while Erwin tried his best to calm the crowd down.
Erwin’s grocery shop, which went viral on social media after its owners, Erwin and Susanna, limited excessive purchases of food amid coronavirus panic, is located in Teluk Gong, North Jakarta. (JP/Galih Gumelar)
“All I kept thinking at that time was that I needed to save some of the food for people who were really in need and not sell everything to panicked customers,” said Erwin, who has been running his business for 30 years.
He described the panic buying as a “ridiculous act”, saying that people should not have allowed panic to turn into greed. Stockpiling goods, he said, would only result in shortages across the capital and a surge in prices – which would be particularly unfair to families with low purchasing power, including his regular customers who were mostly low-income households, small retailers, small-scale food vendors and school canteens. Selling everything to panicked customers could also keep others from running their businesses, he added.
“At that time, I didn't even realize that President Joko [“Jokowi”] Widodo had announced the first two confirmed COVID-19 patients, which apparently was the reason why people rushed into my shop," Erwin said. "But even if I knew the information earlier, I wouldn’t have wanted to gain profit from that situation."
Not long after, his store went viral on social media after an unknown netizen uploaded a video on Twitter and Instagram of Susanna stopping the customers from buying excessive quantities of goods. Netizens applauded her.
People have also praised Anis Hidayah – a neighbor of the first two COVID-19 patients in Depok and an activist with Migrant Care – for defending the privacy of her neighbors in a Facebook comment that also went viral.
“Please stop the constant live coverage of our housing complex. Enough!" Anis said, voicing her frustrations about local broadcasting station TV One's coverage of her neighbors.
Anis went on to defend the patients, whom she described as a respectable lecturer and a professional Javanese dancer with international achievements. She also claimed that the public thirst for information had led the media to report falsehoods about the neighborhood. She and fellow residents have threatened to report media outlets to the Press Council.
"[She is] humble, friendly to her neighbors and cares about them,” she said. "Stop judging the patients. Stop spreading pictures of the patients."
Personal details and pictures of the two patients popped up online, with unclear origins, not long after the government’s announcement of the confirmed cases. The Health Ministry has denied responsibility for the leak.
People are born with survival instincts, which naturally emerge when they are in distress, said Daisy Indira Yasmine, a sociologist at the University of Indonesia. They tend to put their own personal interests ahead of others when dealing with hard situations.
Fear also leads panicked people to take in everything they hear about the disease, whether it is credible information or misinformation, even if it compromises the privacy of others, she added.
“People might seem not to care about each other during frantic times. That doesn’t mean that people are doing it on purpose; they are just following their basic instincts,” Daisy said.
“But, that doesn’t mean that we can justify such behavior. It can harm others. As for this case, the government should calm people down by providing valid information about the disease and about how people can cope with the outbreak carefully." (glh)