Indonesia’s government was slow to lock down, so its people took charge

Local quarantines have sprung up throughout the world’s largest island nation, but the end of Ramadan poses a severe test.

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Crowds gather to receive aid distributed by the Indonesian Marines during the coronavirus pandemic in Gunung Sahari, Jakarta, Indonesia.

In February, as the coronavirus victim count rose steadily in countries like Singapore, Japan, and South Korea, Indonesia maintained that there was not a single case within its borders. As the government steadfastly refused to instate social distancing, cancel events, or start mass testing, local communities started to feel differently.

“Our government kept telling us we don’t have it, we don’t have it here,” urban rights activist Dharma Diani recounted. “But I kept thinking, if it’s even there in Singapore, such a clean and modern city, how could it not be here in Jakarta?” said Diani, who lives in Aquarium Neighborhood, one of the densely packed low-income settlements clustered near the Jakarta’s northern coastline.

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Up to 20 million people usually travel within Indonesia for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that concludes the holy month of Ramadan, like these passengers on an intercity bus from Jakarta to Padang, a city on the west coast of Sumatra. The journey will take at least 40 hours, and due to high demand the bus company largely ignored the government’s rule to leave half the vehicle empty.

A veteran organizer, Diani took matters into her own hands. “I had trouble convincing people in my neighborhood at first. People still thought we were untouchable because of the weather or prayers or whatever else. I had to convince them one by one, through WhatsApp and in person, that we needed to change our lifestyle because of COVID-19,” she said. “Eventually they understood.”

By early March, Diani had mobilized a task force of volunteers to effectively close off her neighborhood, persuade residents to stop working and stay at home when possible, and propagate hygiene practices such as handwashing. The volunteers even started making their own hand sanitizer, and initiated a neighborhood-level “self-quarantine” on March 10— ten days before the Jakarta governor declared a state of emergency, Diani noted, proudly.

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The central government has been slow to act, so many Indonesians have created their own lockdowns. In the densely-populated settlement of Tambora, in West Jakarta, locals blocked off many of the alleys.

Across Indonesia, a sprawling nation of more than 15,000 islands, communities have used creative methods to impose their own, hyperlocal lockdowns since early March. These community-driven quarantines are now found in big cities and small towns, spacious suburbs and sparsely populated islands. They affect both rich and poor, though working-class people were among the first to organize themselves.


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“It's an indication of the frustration with the central government's crisis response,” said Marcus Mietzner, an Indonesia-focused political scientist at Australian National University.

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On April 22, the city of Bandung declared PSBB, or large-scale social distancing, to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Some of the city’s main roads have been closed, and all non-essential businesses have been shut.

Indonesian president Joko Widodo has argued that the economic and social cost of a complete lockdown is unfeasible. “Every country has its own character, culture, and discipline level,” he said in late March. “With this in mind, facing this COVID-19, we don’t opt for lockdown.” Today, China is the only Asian nation with a higher COVID-19 death toll than Indonesia, which has recorded more than 1,000 deaths. Some experts say the real number might be higher due to low overall testing and underreporting. Jakarta, the epicenter of the pandemic with 5,375 confirmed cases, experienced a 40 percent increase in funerals in March.

After nearly a month of grassroots pressure to take some preventative measures, Indonesia’s central government finally responded. It cancelled all domestic flights and banned internal migration for the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. Jakarta also instituted a “large-scale social distancing” order until May 22, although its terms have been vague and many people still go to work and use mass transit. (See pictures of this year's Ramadan as it adapts to coronavirus.)

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A sign points people to a free drive-thru rapid testing site in Kemayoran, Jakarta. The city experienced a 40 percent increase in funerals in March, and many believe the true death toll is much higher.

The motto of the government’s belated COVID-19 response—a phrase that started as a popular Twitter hashtag—is “di rumah aja, or “just stay at home.” But for many Indonesians, the government response has been too little, too late, and doesn’t take into account what constitutes home for millions of poor people.

Creative social distancing

On Java, the world’s most populous island, some communities have been particularly creative in getting the message out. In the village of Kepuh, young men dressed up as pocong—a mummy from local folklore—and stood guard at night to frighten residents into staying home. In the central Javanese regency of Sragen, two men who disobeyed self-isolation orders were locked in a “haunted house” in a rice paddy field.

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A Jakarta commuter train staff member checks the body temperature of a passenger at Sudirman station in Central Jakarta. Public transit is still running, though on a limited schedule.

Community leaders are implementing a patchwork of best practices that have emerged since the first COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China. Among them: Isolate for 14 days if you’ve been traveling, wash your hands frequently, avoid large gatherings, don’t touch your face. (Discover how sneezes can launch germs much farther than six feet.)

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A convenience store clerk in Bandung wears a mask and stands behind a plastic screen to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19.

In rural areas as well as cities, people have been quick to adopt these measures. Dewi Kartika, a 16-year-old from East Java who was working in a famous chicken soup restaurant in Jakarta until last week, was impressed by how well her extended family understood her need to quarantine when she came home.

“I live in a house with seven people, including my grandma and three siblings,” she said on the third day of her self-quarantine in Bojonegoro. “They had prepared my separate bed, separate bathroom supplies, and even separate utensils for me, and we are never in the kitchen at the same time.” Over the past month, the whole town of Bojonegoro has implemented these protocols for returning workers.

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Police officers pull over a van suspected of carrying people trying to leave Jakarta for the Eid holiday. On April 21 Indonesian president Joko Widodo banned the tradition of mudik, or homecoming, and set up 24-hour checkpoints around the country.

Across Indonesia, frontline responses to the pandemic, from testing to contact tracing, are happening at Puskesmas, government-financed community health clinics that provide basic services such as check-ups, maternal and postnatal care, and immunization. The roughly 9,700 Puskesmas are run by district and municipal governments, rather than the central government, and are just one illustration of how decentralization is a fundamental feature of Indonesian democracy today. When the Suharto dictatorship collapsed in 1998 after 33 years, local leaders demanded more governing autonomy. Today—in a country whose islands span a distance greater than the width of the continental U.S.—Indonesian subdivisions are somewhat used to looking after themselves.

The government initially looked upon local lockdowns unfavorably. In March, President Widodo asserted that all official quarantines must come from the central government. By April, perhaps recognizing the persistence of regional autonomy, Jakarta allowed municipalities to officially order large-scale social distancing, and shut down non-essential businesses. So far two provinces and 16 municipalities and regencies have that order in place, including the large cities of Bandung and Makassar.

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Jakartans have been unable to visit Bandung, a popular weekend destination, since the coronavirus pandemic hit.

But even in Jakarta, a city of 10 million with a longstanding social-distancing order, small neighborhood units have been imposing micro-lockdowns. The dense settlements of North Jakarta were the first movers, in early March. An area in West Jakarta called Tambora sealed off its entrances with DIY banners declaring “entry is forbidden.” These early efforts were often shared widely on social media, inspiring copycats, said Gugun Muhammad, a North Jakarta-based activist with the Urban Poor Consortium.

“Most of the urban poor cannot ‘just stay at home,’ because they live in small and multi-family homes,” said Muhammad. “So what we try to do is isolate at the unit of the village.” That way, residents have more space and can shelter in place in a more sustainable way.

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Though the government has encouraged people to stay home during Ramadan, many are still eager to attend mosques. Here, people attend evening prayers on the first day of Ramadan at a mosque in Sleman, Yogyakarta.

Millions of Jakartans live in kampungs, informal neighborhoods that retain a village social structure. Because urban kampungs often have a tenuous legal status, they are accustomed to using grassroots advocacy to assert their identity as villages rather than squatter settlements, and demand social services, according to University of Gothenburg anthropologist Jörgen Hellman.

In this “urban village” context, distributing food and supplies during the pandemic has also become hyper-localized. The Urban Poor Consortium has mobilized a small team of volunteers to buy groceries for whole neighborhoods in North Jakarta, deliver them with minimal contact, and log their trips online.

It is difficult to determine whether these measures have kept COVID-19 from spreading because testing remains very low in Indonesia. To date, only about 165,000 have been administered in the country of nearly 270 million people, compared to nearly 10 million tests in the U.S. and 1.44 million in Turkey. (This is why unreliable COVID-19 tests are flooding the market.)

“Expecting nothing from the government”

Indigenous people, who number between 50 to 70 million in Indonesia, have been among the most proactive at sealing off their communities. The Iban Dayak community of Sungai Utik, on the island of Borneo, live in one of Indonesia’s last traditional longhouses, massive wooden structures containing dozens of family apartments, kitchens, craft rooms, and communal spaces. When news of coronavirus started filtering into Sungai Utik in the first week of March, its approximately 150 residents swiftly closed off access to outsiders and tourists, said Sutomo, a member of the tribe who lives there. Food is not an issue, because his community is full of talented hunters and foragers. “The forest is our kitchen,” he said.

“Indigenous people have the easiest time adapting to a lockdown, because they are used to expecting nothing from the government,” said Mina Setra, an indigenous rights activist and ethnic Dayak who now lives in Jakarta.

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A dedicated burial crowd for COVID-19 victims at the Pondok Ranggon Public Cemetery Complex, East Jakarta. Indonesia has the highest coronavirus death toll in Asia outside of China.

This is especially true in Indonesia’s easternmost provinces, West Papua and Papua, which are heavily populated by indigenous people. The provinces are both heavily militarized, due in part to a decades-long separatist movement, and have a tense relationship with the central government. Two weeks before Jakarta's municipal social restriction order, the mayors of Merauke and Sorong, large cities in Papua and West Papua, initiated city-wide lockdowns. Papua’s provincial House of Representatives also temporarily closed all land, air, and sea ports. (To this day there is no official social-distancing order in either Papua or West Papua.)

“In the villages, people began to flee over a month ago to the forests to avoid spreading the virus,” said Rasella Melinda, an activist with PUSAKA, an indigenous rights organization.

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The hearse driver who transported the coffin of a suspected COVID-19 victim has a quiet moment to himself after the burial.

Maluku, another eastern province composed of many far-flung islands, including those that grow vast quantities of nutmeg and clove, also closed most of its sea ports in late March. “The governments of Maluku and Papua are not known for their effectiveness… But in this crisis, their sense was that the virus was spreading eastwards, and that they had a chance of stopping it if locking down quickly,” said Mietzner.

Still, these local lockdowns can’t offset the economic fallout from the pandemic. Many Indonesians have expressed frustration with the government for failing to deliver promised aid packages. Diani said her neighborhood has been raising money for supplies through a crowdfunding site and that residents have been pooling their savings to help each other. But she didn't know how long that would tide them over.

Holiday woes

A huge test for Indonesia’s piecemeal social distancing approach looms in the near future: Eid al-Fitr—known in Indonesia as Lebaran—the holiday that concludes the holy month of Ramadan. After many observant Muslims have fasted from dawn to dusk for a month, Lebaran (May 23-24 this year) is a long celebration of prayers, alms distribution, and extravagant feasting.

The problem with the upcoming Lebaran is not just the festivities, but mudik, the practice of mass migration from cities to hometowns for the holiday. Typically, up to 20 million people travel within Indonesia for mudikand this year, anticipating difficulties, many workers started going home up to a month in advance.

Ramadan, which began at sunset on April 23, has already been fraying the thin social distancing fabric in the world's largest Muslim-majority country. Many continue to gather for public prayer in provinces like Aceh and break fasts together, in violation of social distancing guidelines.

“Many people just ignore [social distancing],” said Yohanes Sulaiman, a political science professor at General Achmad Yani University who lives in Bandung, West Java. “You are supposed to be fined up to 100 million rupiah [about US$6700] for breaking the quarantine. Try telling that to those trying to pray in mosques, though, then you will get the familiar line that the government is being anti-Islamic,” he says. “In general they are really going easy on the offenders.”

On April 21, President Widodo banned mudik, setting up 24-hour checkpoints in several provinces. Thousands of vehicles attempting to enter or exit Jakarta were forcibly turned around. Civil servants were warned that they would face sanctions if they travel home. Diani saw it as a promising sign that the government was taking the threat seriously.

“If the mudik ban is really enforced, it will be a relief. If not, it will undo a lot of things that we have worked for," she said in late April.

But on May 6, the government backtracked and decided to allow air, land, and sea transport for mudik so long as people follow "health protocols” such as leaving empty seats between passengers. The state-supported Indonesian Council of Islamic Scholars (MUI) also declined to issue a ruling prohibiting mudik.

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Truck driver Ahmad Farhan uses the downtime of a ferry crossing from Sumatra to Java to video call a date.

"The watering down of the transport ban is entirely consistent with the mixed messaging the government has sent from the beginning of the mudik,” said Mietzner. “While nominally discouraging it, the government continues to look at mudik as a way of releasing socio-economic pressure from the urban centers, and is willing to accept increased infection numbers in return."

If mudik proceeds, Java island, home to more than half of the country’s population, could face one million infections by July, according to a forecast from the University of Indonesia public health faculty.

For her part, Diani, like many other local leaders, has long been petitioning everyone in her village to stay put for the holiday, regardless of the overlapping government orders. “It would be so much easier to do all of this if there were a real, centralized directive,” she said. “Even though everyone understands the threat of coronavirus now, many are still reluctant to change their daily lives without a central government order. It just doesn’t seem that serious.”

Muhammad Fadli is an Indonesian documentary and portrait photographer based in Jakarta. His first book, Rebel Riders, highlights Indonesian extreme scooter subculture and was published at nationalgeographic.com. To see more of his work, follow him on Instagram or on his website.
Krithika Varagur is an American journalist focusing on Southeast Asia, a National Geographic explorer, and the author of The Call: Inside the Global Saudi Religious Project.