How many people are Indonesians

Social inequality and economic insecurity in times of crisis

(Surviving) life in Indonesia in times of Corona

Like almost all countries these days, Indonesia is in a state of emergency. It is going through the most dramatic crisis since the 1997/98 Asian crisis. In the midst of the Corona crisis, millions of people living below and on the poverty line are currently struggling with the economic and social effects of the pandemic.

by Gunnar Stange

Food distribution in Pasar Kembang, Yogyakarta; Image source: provided by Gunnar Stange

It has been two months since the first COVID-19 diagnoses in Indonesia. In Southeast Asia, only Singapore reports higher numbers of infections. Indonesia has the highest number of deaths from COVID-19 in the region. According to official information, 16,006 people in Indonesia were infected and 1,043 died of the corona virus on May 15, 2020. Independent studies even assume more than 2,200 fatalities. Jakarta is the center of the epidemic. There, 5,688 people had tested positive for COVID-19 by May 15 and 452 had died from the virus. However, the actual extent of the disaster is arguably even more dramatic than these figures suggest. In an analysis of the global excess mortality rate for Jakarta, the New York Times calculated 3,200 more deaths in March and April 2020 than the average for these months in previous years. So far, only a little more than 60,000 corona tests have been carried out in Indonesia. The number of unreported cases of infected people and those who have died due to COVID-19 is probably much higher.

In the meantime, regional crisis teams have been set up in 34 provinces and 249 districts and cities to deal with the epidemic. The central government largely banned the use of sea, land and air transportation, including commercial flights, on all international and domestic routes from April 24 to May 31. International entries to Indonesia from countries with very high numbers of infections are currently not possible. For entry from other countries, there is a mandatory two-week private self-isolation after entry. The mobility restrictions within Indonesia were imposed to prevent the spread of the corona virus during the annual mudik, the family trip home at the end of Ramadan (23/24 May 2020). Normally during this time, millions of people from the Jakarta metropolitan area alone make their way to their families. The Indonesian government hopes to use these measures to bring the epidemic under control in the course of June. In addition to the transport ban, several regions (Jakarta and Western Sumatra as well as 22 districts / cities) have issued comprehensive social restrictions (Pembatasan Sosial Berskala Besar, PSBB) in the form of exit restrictions, which can be punished with prison sentences if they are not complied with. Some of these regions are likely to become even stricter in enforcing PSBB regulations in the near future, as large crowds persist, especially during the traditional fast-breaking this Ramadan.

To date, there are 668 reference hospitals in Indonesia for COVID-19 patients. The country is just starting to manufacture ventilators and is hoping to soon be able to produce 500 of the devices per week. Technical innovations are also reported in the fight against the corona virus. Scientists at Universitas Indonesia in Jakarta, for example, have developed an ultraviolet light-based disinfection box for medical devices. Nonetheless, Indonesia is far worse off than many countries in the Global North when it comes to an impending collapse of its health system. While there are around six hospital beds for 1,000 residents in Germany, for example, there are only 1.2 in Indonesia. Health experts assume that adequate health care for the population can only be guaranteed from 2 beds per 1000 inhabitants, even in non-epidemic times.

Void on Jalan Malioboro in Yogyakarta; Image source: provided by Gunnar Stange

The effects of the corona crisis on the poor and marginalized population

According to official figures, around ten percent of the more than 260 million inhabitants of Indonesia live below the poverty line, which is defined as 1.25 US dollars a day. International organizations estimate, however, that almost 100 million Indonesians * live on less than 1.9 US dollars a day - the international poverty line. In these times of massive restrictions on public life, their existence is threatened due to a lack of income opportunities. In addition, the current crisis could drive millions of families with incomes just above the poverty line into poverty. Similar to the Asian crisis of 1997/98, the poor population in rural areas is probably doing a little better due to better opportunities for self-sufficiency. However, around 60 percent of Indonesians live in cities and are therefore dependent on monetary income. Many of them earn their daily living in sectors of the economy that are particularly hard hit by social restrictions, such as passenger transport or street sales. Anyone who has ever visited Indonesia knows how much, for example, motorcycle taxis and small food stalls shape public life.

In addition, poor parts of the population are much more threatened by the corona virus in view of the current worries about bread. Where possible, they have no choice but to work and expose themselves to the risk of infection. Wardah Hafidz of the major NGO Urban Poor Consortium, which cares for the needs of the urban poor, said in an interview with the South China Morning Post on March 15, 2020: “As long as they feel strong enough, the poor will be when they do If you are sick you continue to work in order to survive. ”In addition, the purchase of infection protection masks, for example, represents an additional financial burden and intensive care treatment is simply not affordable for many people. Most of the poor turn to small polyclinics or health centers (Pusat Kesehatan Masyarakat, PuskesMas) where they receive free medical care. In most cases, however, neither tests can be carried out there, nor can people receive intensive medical care.

Government agencies are now distributing staple foods to the poor, particularly in cities with severe social restrictions. For example, the Jakarta provincial government distributes food aid to families in need every three weeks. However, these are only enough for a week. As usual, in this situation the Indonesian government is counting on the population to somehow save themselves through this crisis in an informal way and with the support of civil society and religious organizations.

Indeed, in almost no country in the world is there greater civil society solidarity than in Indonesia. In the 2019 Legatum Prosperity Index, Indonesia ranked fifth in social capital and first in social and civic participation. Indonesia has the highest volunteering participation rate in the world. In the 2018 Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) World Giving Index, Indonesia took first place for regular donations and volunteering. Even today, the nationwide commitment is impressive. Tens of thousands of people are already involved on online donation platforms such as In the medical field alone, 15,000 medical students from 158 universities have volunteered.

The Folk Kitchen in Pasar Kembang, Yogyakarta; Image source: provided by Gunnar Stange

Dense crowd in Pasar Kembang, Yogyakarta; Image source: provided by Gunnar Stange

Civil society solidarity in Yogyakarta

On March 31, 2020 I received a WhatsApp message from an old friend from Yogyakarta. We met again at the beginning of 2019 after 15 years at a cabaret festival in Pasar Kembang in Yogyakarta. We have been in loose contact since then. In your message, she asked - and between the lines it became clear how uncomfortable she was with the request - for some money to rent her 24-square-meter house. She lives there with her husband and their two children. She wrote that the money was barely enough for food, but the sudden loss of income due to the lack of tourists had brought her to the edge of her existence. She has been active in the city's arts and crafts scene for two decades. Her husband sells handicrafts on Jalan Malioboro, the tourist heart of Yogyakarta.

Just like you and your family, tens of thousands are currently doing in Yogyakarta. As the cultural center of Indonesia, the city is particularly dependent on tourism. Every year around six million local and four hundred thousand international tourists come to the city. They are one of the main sources of income for the population. Your coming decides to a large extent how much money is available to the people in Yogyakarta. Since the end of March, this source has almost dried up. Like many regions in Indonesia, Yogyakarta is largely cut off from the mobility network. The railway has ceased operations, the major expressways are partially closed and domestic flights are suspended for the time being. Most of the hotels and especially medium-sized and small shops are closed.

In Yogyakarta there are no such strict restrictions on public life as in Jakarta. The official infection and death rates are also very low compared to the country's capital. Nevertheless, the authorities have recommended that people avoid social activities as much as possible and work from home. However, this is simply impossible for all the people who literally live from hand to mouth and have to secure their livelihood on the streets of Yogyakarta every day. The same goes for the advice on physical distancing. In mid-April, a friend who lives with his family in a small two-room house in a densely packed Kampung Yogyakartas asked me how physical distancing should be possible in such an environment. When you consider that this housing situation corresponds to the reality of life for the majority of people in Indonesia, it quickly becomes clear that physical distancing is not a viable way for most people in Indonesia to cope with the epidemic.

In Yogyakarta, too, the local government has so far not done enough to support the particularly vulnerable people in the current emergency. Although electricity costs have been waived or halved for poor households and food has been given out here and there, the majority of the support is currently reaching people from religious and civil society organizations as well as neighborhood initiatives. Even the acquaintance I was talking about got together with a group of friends after the first shock and supports poor families with food financed by donations. In their district, the group cooks around 50 dishes for the needy every day, distributes food parcels and hygiene items and also supports a folk kitchen in the Pasar Kembang district, which serves around 150 meals a day.

As everywhere these days, the corona crisis acts like a magnifying glass in Indonesia that shows and additionally exacerbates social inequality. 60 to 70 percent of Indonesia's working population earn their living in the informal sector and is therefore either not covered at all or only partially covered by the state social security systems. Accordingly, civil society engagement in the social field has a very special meaning in Indonesia. The country has been able to master its crises of the past decades - be they natural or economic-social catastrophes - so well because its population is characterized by an exceptional degree of social responsibility. It is to be hoped that this will prevent worse things from happening in this crisis as well. Nobody in Indonesia can trust the government here alone.

About the author | Dr. Gunnar Rod

As a research assistant, Stange teaches and researches in the working group on population geography and demography at the Institute for Geography and Regional Research at the University of Vienna. His main focus is on conflict transformation, migration and displacement and displacement in Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia and Thailand. Together with his colleagues, the scientist is currently developing an Internet portal on the global effects of SARS-CoV-2 on migrants.

Pictures from top to bottom: Food preparation in the people's kitchen in Pasar Kembang, Yogyakarta and food distribution in Pasar Kembang; Image source: provided by Gunnar Stange

Category: Politics & Society