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Jakarta Post

Hand washing to counter COVID-19 still a luxury for Indonesia’s urban poor

  • Ardila Syakriah
    Ardila Syakriah

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, March 24, 2020   /   12:53 pm
Hand washing to counter COVID-19 still a luxury for Indonesia’s urban poor Getting through: A water seller brings empty water bottles to a water agent for refilling in Ancol, North Jakarta. Clean-water distribution is a competitive small business in slum areas in Jakarta. (JP/Jerry Adiguna)

As COVID-19 spreads throughout the nation, the 20-second hand-washing routine has echoed across the airwaves and has been religiously inscribed on both conventional and social media.

From medical professionals to celebrities, everyone and their mothers have preached about the importance of hand washing – still deemed the best weapon against the new coronavirus strain, in the absence of a working vaccine or antiviral drug.

In Indonesia, however, hand washing appears to be a luxury activity for the tens of millions of citizens who have no access to clean water.

Statistics Indonesia (BPS) data in 2018 shows that just 74 percent of the population has access to clean drinking water, and an even lower percentile for regions outside urban areas.

The data also indicates interregional water inequality, with citizens in the eastern half of the country having lower access to clean water than those in the western half of the country.

Read also: Some Indonesians try to ward off COVID-19 with talismans, rituals

The BPS data from 2019 shows that only 76.07 percent of the population had access to public hand-washing facilities that provided soap. Papua recorded the lowest figure with 35.55 percent of the regional population having access to such facilities, followed by East Nusa Tenggara with 51.92 percent and Aceh with 64 percent. 

None of the country's 34 provinces recorded figures above 90 percent, not even Jakarta, which recorded 73.18 percent.

In the capital Jakarta, which has emerged as the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the country with 579 confirmed infections and 49 deaths as of Monday, a lack of access to clean water still haunts many low-income families given the absence of regulations in property rights, among other reasons.

The Jakarta administration has set a target of expanding the city’s tap water coverage to 82 percent by 2023 from the current figure of 62 percent, although experts believe the real figures might actually be lower. Nila Ardhianie, the director of the Amrta Institute for Water Literacy, said that coverage could range between 30 and 35 percent based on users' water needs.

As a result, untapped households – especially in North and West Jakarta – have had to resort to buying from water vendors commonly operating by cart, with each person spending as much as Rp 360,000 per month, she said.

Households in Jakarta commonly comprise four to five family members, with a median income of Rp 3.36 million for poorer households, according to 2019 BPS data – meaning that water consumption is likely to add a significant burden to these families’ spending.

The sluggish progress in expanding tap water coverage, especially to low-income households, has been attributed by the Coalition of Jakarta Residents Opposing Water Privatization (KMMSAJ) to the privatization of water utilities.

The KMMSAJ filed a civil lawsuit against water privatization in 2013, arguing that private operators Aetra and Palyja had failed to provide clean water for all households.

Read also: What you need to know about Jakarta’s water privatization

“At the moment, low-income groups are faced with difficulties in maintaining hygiene – they can hardly afford to wash their hands, let alone gain access to drinking water. As a result, they are very prone to being revictimized by the coronavirus infection,” the group said in a statement issued on Sunday. March 22 is celebrated as World Water Day.

The group called on the Jakarta administration to take over the city’s tap water management in order to provide good quality and affordable water for all layers of society, rather than allowing private companies to focus water resources on lavish gated communities, apartments, hotels, malls and office buildings.

Only then, the group argues, can people follow proper social-distancing etiquette and maintain good hygiene, as officials have called for in a bid to suppress further transmission of the virus.

Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan said last year that his administration would gradually take over the management of tap water from private operators in spite of a recent Supreme Court ruling that backed continued privatization.

He said that the takeover was important in order to “correct” the existing agreement between the government and the two private operators, which has allowed the firms to manage the city’s tap water uninterrupted from 1997 to 2023.

Jakarta-owned tap water company PAM Jaya president director Priyatno Bambang Hernowo told The Jakarta Post on Monday that his office was still in the process of negotiating a new agreement on the takeover with the two private firms, saying that the company would in the meantime be focused on maintaining clean water provision amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Priyatno gave an assurance that the company would reach even more households by June, adding as many as 30,000 new customers in North and West Jakarta. Additionally, the company has set up a number of portable sinks in public spaces including transportation hubs and stations, and was planning to add more at 30 points across the city in the next two weeks.

Read also: Indonesians show generosity in crowdfunding initiatives to fight COVID-19

Amrta’s Nila urged the Jakarta administration to go beyond what was already being done, underscoring the importance of good hygiene as the first line of defense against the coronavirus and a wide array of other diseases.

“Residents who face economic difficulties during this pandemic and hence can’t fulfill their monthly water payments should be given an exemption. They should allow residents to report their water needs to call centers,” she said.

Activist Sandyawan Sumardi, who leads the House of Humanitarian Solidarity of Jakarta, said the government's handling of the outbreak was "extremely bad and late" when it came to protecting lower-income families.

“The urban poor have little or no access to hospitals due to the high costs, and [can’t be expected to lead] a hygienic lifestyle because they have no hand sanitizers or masks, let alone think about ‘social distancing,’” he said.

“If they don’t go out to work for just one day, they won’t be able to eat.”

Although the majority of Indonesia’s confirmed cases are still centered on Java, experts have voiced concerns about the virus spreading further across the country, including into rural areas where the healthcare system is still largely inadequate. The first confirmed case in Ambon, for instance, had a history of travel from Bekasi in West Java, just on the outskirts of Jakarta.

Meanwhile, communities have moved fast to raise donations to ensure that low-income families can get access to masks and hand sanitizers, while the University of Indonesia has plans to set up 44 portable hand-washing stations in public spaces across Greater Jakarta, including in traditional markets.