DUNCAN GRAHAM The land of no social distance

While the Western world thinks staying apart is wise to avoid Covid-19 infections, Indonesians still remain together.

Only magnates can practise social distancing by fleeing to apartments in Singapore, or hunkering down in their Jakarta mansions. The threats would come from outside the high iron gates, brought in by the maids, gardeners and drivers who help maintain the oligarch’s opulent lifestyles.

The wee folk have no opportunity to keep their distance on Java. It’s reputed to be the world’s most densely populated island with about 1,120 people per square kilometer. In Jakarta the compaction is a dozen times greater.

Johns Hopkins University of Medicine in the US is tallying Covid-19 around the world. On Wednesday (25/3) Indonesia had 686 cases confirmed and 55 deaths. That ratio of almost nine to one puts Indonesia far above other countries, but may also be skewed because so few have been tested.

The environment is another danger. Few Westerners get the chance to explore the gang (alleys) of urban kampongs where people live so close its often impossible to pass and not brush clothes. Reaching out to the neighbours doesn’t demand a conscious decision – just lifting an arm is sufficient.

The Directorate General of Human Settlements reported that kawasan kumuh (slums) covered 38,000 hectares of Indonesia. This had risen to 87,000 hectares last year despite many clearing projects. In Jakarta 445 communities are classified as ‘slums’.

It’s in these twisted, congested communes that the roots of Indonesian tolerance – and parochialism – have thrived.

Elsewhere millions of workers and students live in kos, basic bedrooms with access to a toilet and little else rented from private homeowners. These people eat outside at roadside stalls, making the idea of a lockdown impractical.

The language is full of references to the virtues of close-proximity living. Rindu kampung halaman (I long for my village), to mangan ora manga asal kumpul (even when hungry we have each other). Hanging out (nongkrong) was invented in Indonesia.

Now being shared is a virus. Although kampong residents generally keep homes and streets well washed, drains are usually open and livestock often kept under the same roof. Walls, doorways, handles, switches – all are touched and retouched every few minutes.

In Tomohon, a small town in North Sulawesi, a wildlife meat market similar to the one in Wuhan where Covid-19 is alleged to have started, operates openly. Dogs, cats, bats, forest pig, pythons and other feral animals continue to be sold despite an international campaign to have the trade shuttered. In response a huge government poster outside proclaims its ‘Love for Animals’.

Jamu (herbal drink) women wander the streets selling home made cures for all ills, including coronavirus. Their potions are far cheaper than proprietary medicines and their effectiveness is confirmed by anecdote.

At least customers aren’t following Australia and panic buying toilet rolls, only found in hotels catering for foreigners. The culture is to wash, which seems far cleaner.

Community health services stress hygiene and proper waste disposal, yet rivers remain the favoured place to chuck rubbish. The best disposal points are indicated by signs threatening penalties. The people have information – what they don’t have is health literacy.

The US National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine defines this as ‘the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.’

Most research has been done in Europe, but any survey in Indonesia would likely find the nation largely health illiterate. Which makes combating the spread of Covid-19 particularly difficult.

Although my wife looks and feels fine it seems she suffers from hypothermia. That’s according to a shop security guard’s forehead thermometer which recorded 33 degrees.

It was the same for her equally sprightly sister. The women distrusted the device and its untrained user so walked on. But the procedure looked comforting; something was being done.

The dangers of smoking are advertised on the packs of fags plus a small panel on the huge DON’T QUIT posters urging men to prove their masculinity though nicotine.

International health authorities believe almost 70 per cent of Indonesian men smoke. Packs cost about one US dollar. The World Health Organisation reckons around 270,000 deaths a year in Indonesia are caused by smoking. If Covid-19 takes hold smokers will be particularly susceptible.

The World Bank estimates that around 25 million Indonesians live on one US dollar a day. More than half the workforce is in the informal sector and has no safety net.

It’s work, beg or bludge from relatives – which is another reason President Joko Widodo is resisting a lockdown.

There’s a tiered national health insurance scheme called BPJS (Badan Penyelenggara Jaminan Sosial) which relies on voluntary payments. It’s grossly under-funded, opposed by many hospitals and doctors, and seriously sick.

Working from home is an option only for the well-educated employed by government, multinationals and universities. But even they have to cope with poor Internet services.

According to the US pro-democracy NGO Freedom House only 56 per cent of Indonesians have access to the Internet, one of the lowest penetration levels in the region. Even in big centres it’s frustratingly fickle.

So far religion has trumped reason in the response to Covid-19.

At first it was widely claimed the virus would by-pass the archipelago because all citizens must profess to a monotheistic belief and record their adherence to one of six approved religions on their ID cards. Prayer would prevent.

Even Health Minister Terawan Agus recommended worship while medicos were urging washing.

Few questioned why any deity would recognize lines drawn on maps by humans, spare those on one side while afflicting the disbelievers next door.

Deaths in Indonesia, where almost 90 per cent of the population is Muslim, are followed by same day or next morning burials. The community gets involved, rarely undertakers and doctors.

Unless the police are called because of violence, there’s seldom a post mortem or tissue swab to determine cause of death. Instead relatives use their faith to explain a sudden departure: Allah or God had called her or him home. Their time was up. That’s how the world works.

No longer.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist writing from Indonesia.

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