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Jakarta Post

One year into outbreak, Indonesians soldier on

  • Ardila Syakriah and Budi Sutrisno

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, March 2, 2021   /   03:15 pm
One year into outbreak, Indonesians soldier on Elderly people sit distanced from one another as they wait their turn for a pre-COVID-19 vaccination screening at a community health center in Palmerah, West Jakarta, on Feb. 25. The government aims to inoculate some 21 million people aged 60 and above and 17 million public service and essential workers in the second phase of vaccination, which started on Feb. 17. (JP/Ardila Syakriah)

When Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin was sworn into the position in December 2020, he said this about the country’s COVID-19 efforts: “We believe it is not enough for the government to come up with its own programs; there must be a movement carried out together with the Indonesian people."

But this was something many Indonesians had already been doing after months of COVID-19, and as the twin health and economic crises continue to batter the country and adversely affect mental health, people have been offering helping hands to those in need and filling the gaps left by the government’s virus response.

Joining hands

Young people from a subdistrict of Bandung, West Java, for instance, started collecting waste in exchange for money, which they used to buy groceries for some 200 families with young children and pregnant women living in the area.

In August of last year, the community began hanging food packages on a gate at a nearby riverbank for more struggling families to take, a nod to the program’s name, Cantelan, which roughly translates to “hooks”.

All of this was done in the absence of government aid and amid disruptions to locally managed integrated health service posts (Posyandu), said local community head Sofyan Mustafha.

The initiative has been suspended for the past two months, after five cases of the virus were reported in the neighborhood. The money the community collected was redirected to buy food and supplies for the 36 residents who had to self-isolate at home.

The neighborhood pitched in Rp 1 million per day in the absence of government aid, Sofyan said, with donations coming even from low-income residents, whose job security had been compromised by the outbreak.

Many of the residents hit hardest by the pandemic were not even listed as potential recipients of state social assistance. In addition, the benefits afforded through the scheme have been reduced this year.

“The pandemic is going to last for a while. It won’t end this year. Waiting for the government takes a long time, so we’re just doing it on our own,” Sofyan said on Sunday.

Read also: Yearender 2020: What went wrong with Indonesia’s virus response?

Help has not only come in the form of groceries but there has been a spike in volunteer-based civil society movements that aim to help inform the public about the pandemic.

Volunteer group LaporCOVID-19 has helped people seek out hospital beds, while KawalCOVID-19 has provided transmission data in various regions.

The latter has a team of 20 volunteers collecting data from the central government and regional administrations, highlighting any discrepancies or extracting and analyzing important information from the mounds of data made available to the public, such as case-fatality ratios and details of at-risk groups.

The volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds, from university students to homemakers.

KawalCOVID-19 coordinator Ronald Bessie said the team remained optimistic one year into the pandemic, even though the team had no idea how long it would continue its activities. He bemoaned the fact that there had barely been any improvement or standardization in the government’s data collection and presentation.

"The people need to know their risks [...] We're forced to continue as the pandemic drags on," he told The Jakarta Post on Monday. “Without data, there's no guidance for the people. For us, that's just wrong.”

Indonesia announced its first confirmed COVID-19 case on March 2 of last year and its first death on March 11. Now, a year into the epidemic, hundreds of people in the country are dying from the disease on a daily basis. The cumulative total exceeded 36,000 deaths on Sunday.

More than 1.3 million people in the country have caught the virus, although the true scale of the outbreak is believed to be much higher. More than 1 million people have recovered and 150,000 more are still recovering.

Dire circumstances

The spread of the illness and the ensuing mobility constraints have resulted in the highest rate of unemployment the country has seen in a decade. Some 2.67 million people had lost their jobs by August 2020, making for a total of 9.77 million people out of work.

Poverty has hit a three-year high with 27.55 million citizens living below the poverty line, which is currently defined as spending less than Rp 458,947 (US$ 33) per capita per month for both food and nonfood goods.

With the state’s haphazard pandemic response early on, many were left with no choice but to persevere.

In Yogyakarta, 22 year-old university student Khasanah took to Twitter last year to promote her mother’s home-made chocolate-covered dates to sell, which help keep her family afloat. Her father had at the time lost his job at a brick manufacturing plant due to the pandemic.

In the midst of her family’s dire financial situation, Khasanah’s tweet was reshared hundreds of times and suddenly, the orders began streaming in.

Her father started working again in January, while Khasanah herself, who asked only to be identified by her second name, has also gotten herself a job while she works to finish her thesis.

"I'm working to help cover my family's needs. It's quite perplexing, but I'm just going along with it," she told the Post on Monday.

Read also: Indonesia starts vaccinating seniors, but many confused by online registration, long queues

On Ratri Anindya, Indonesia’s third confirmed COVID-19 patient, after her sister and mother, the disease has left an indelible mark. Journalists swarmed her family’s house after her sister’s private information leaked, and online, the family faced a barrage of criticism, mainly accusing them of spreading the virus to Indonesia.

She said that while she still experienced online bullying, some strangers had been reaching out to support her and seek information about the disease. This, in turn, motivated her to share her personal experience, despite the psychological impacts of being exposed to the disease and the media frenzy.

"It is a disaster that everybody is facing, so I thought – what part can I play?” Ratri told the Post on Monday.

Those most affected by the pandemic include young people working in the informal sector, such as freelancers and blue collar workers, said Lengga Pradipta, a researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).

According to her research, most of the people who lost their jobs over the past year were between the ages of 25 and 45. Many in this group have shifted to the creative economy sector or have tried their hand at establishing their own businesses to survive.

Mental health support

Based on her findings, nearly 68 percent of people in this “sandwich” generation – a group that tends to have both parents and children as dependents – acknowledged that their incomes had decreased since the pandemic broke out, and 25 percent of those surveyed from this group said they had to sell most of their assets to survive and support their families.

In spite of this, Lengga said her research found that this group was also among the most resilient.

“They must bear a double burden – to survive financially and also maintain their mental health,” she told the Post on Sunday.

Dealing with mental health was a form of resilience, because uncertain conditions during the pandemic had caused a high level of anxiety, said psychologist Sri Redatin Retno Pudjiati from the University of Indonesia (UI).

Read also: Yearender 2020: The year of unexpected changes, silver linings

The Indonesian Psychiatrists Association (PDSKJI) has noted a growing awareness of mental health as people’s understanding of COVID-19 has increased.

Coping skills were neglected in the first six months of the pandemic as many people were in denial, but this changed as they gradually witnessed the loss of family members and jobs, and along with that, they complied more diligently with health protocols, said PDSKJI head Diah Setia Utami.

Workers remove the fine hairs on cowhide by burning it off before they cut them into small pieces to be used as ingredients for skin crackers at a home industry facility in Depok, West Java on Feb. 18, 2021. Home industries have suffered a hit in business due to the pandemic, although some still manage to hang on.Workers remove the fine hairs on cowhide by burning it off before they cut them into small pieces to be used as ingredients for skin crackers at a home industry facility in Depok, West Java on Feb. 18, 2021. Home industries have suffered a hit in business due to the pandemic, although some still manage to hang on. (JP/P.J.Leo)

“Entering the one-year mark, people have started to [...] adapt to the pandemic and be less anxious about dealing with it. This is a form of self and community resilience,” she said on Monday.

When more cases began to emerge and most hospitals were not ready for the influx of new patients, medical workers had to get creative to keep themselves protected until the public donations poured in – some opted for raincoats and masking tape as personal protective equipment remained scarce, according to reports.

As schools closed down, most learning activities were forced online, with teachers and students suddenly having to grapple with uneven internet access. However, communities soon began pitching in to provide free internet access or donated used smartphones to disenfranchised students and schoolchildren.

Crowdfunding platform Kitabisa, for instance, has facilitated since last March a total of 5,663 campaigns by public figures, NGOs and members of the general public to help with COVID-19 mitigation efforts and assist people affected by the pandemic. Altogether, they have raised Rp 169.3 billion from more than 854,000 donors.

Government critique

In the health sector, the key to resilience was the collective effort of public and private institutions to adapt, said Ari Fahrial Syam, the dean of UI’s School of Medicine.

Despite the ongoing tug-of-war between public health and economic primacy, as experts had warned early on about how the pandemic would be prolonged, many sides had come together for recovery and preventive efforts, he said.

In the midst of limited medical devices, screening equipment and test kits, scientists and academia worked together to develop new tools to be used domestically.

Read also: Private COVID-19 vaccination touted as ‘gotong royong’ effort, but can it really help?

Inter-institutional efforts also enabled Indonesia to conduct clinical trials in various institutions after the government initially relied too much on the Health Ministry’s Health Research and Development Agency (Litbangkes), which Ari said had made the diagnosis process very slow.

However, the main driver of recovery remains in the hands of the government. “Our medical personnel are qualified and accustomed to handling emergency outbreak situations like this. It is the government that is still not ready to provide support,” he said on Monday.

And while the government has slowly corrected course and even carried out one of Asia’s earliest vaccination campaigns, the continued lack of state support will result in an endless stream of COVID-19 victims.

Without it, medical practitioners won’t be able to treat their patients in an optimal and professional manner, Ari said.