- Social Resilience Against COVID-19 Masks Indonesian Class Divide
This article was contributed to Forum—the edition’s portfolio of thematic content—by GJIA’s Society & Culture section.
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed longstanding problems of social inequality in countries around the world, typically hitting the poor much harder than the rich. Indonesia has been no exception. However, Indonesia is a country in which a particularly predatory form of capitalism persists and where institutions of governance predominantly operate to facilitate private accumulation by established alliances. Like some world leaders, Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) had denied the severity of the pandemic for the sake of economy activity. In this context, the poor have not only been marginalized from official COVID-19 responses, but their plight has also been exploited and politicized in the interest of dominant politico-business elites.
Indonesian government officials have repeatedly blamed the poor for their inability to follow health protocols, referring to them “as sources of disease, contagion and threat,” thereby diverting attention from the government’s own inadequate policies.1 Yet the government has mobilized some of the same poor people to police communities in order to ensure that health protocols are observed to some extent. In effect, the poor have been pitted against each other through state-sponsored vigilantism.
Financial compensation schemes have also been mainly directed toward private companies and larger-scale business activities. As a result, local initiatives have emerged to organize social assistance for the more impoverished members of society. These community-driven initiatives can certainly contribute to easing the hardship faced by many lower-income families, thereby producing what might be called social resilience. Many studies celebrate them as a response to the “uncertain, unpredictable and random nature of systemic threats” posed by the pandemic.2 Others have viewed them as a manifestation of social capital, specifically associated with a local culture of solidarity, colloquially called gotongroyong.3
We argue that a focus on social resilience conceals the way power relations have shaped the public health response in Indonesia during a time of grave crisis. We should not lose sight of the fact that social resilience has come to the fore because the institutions of governance have been ill-equipped to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable members of society. They are especially susceptible to contagion because of the glaring social inequalities perpetuated within the prevailing system of power. It has been reported by the World Bank, for example, that just one percent of Indonesians own 50 percent of the country’s wealth, while 90 percent of citizens own just 23 percent of it.4
It should be no surprise that the urban poor huddled closely in slums will find it challenging to practice social distancing and COVID-19 protocols. They are also less likely to have the [End Page 45] option of working from home or to refrain from economic activities that require personal mobility, even across long stretches of urban sprawl. In other words, the poor have been unable to observe health protocols—not for reasons of social irresponsibility or ignorance, but due to the systemic social inequalities to which they have been ensnared.
It follows that the social resilience shown by many communities in Indonesia should not mask the way the government has failed to flatten the curve of COVID-19 infection.5 It may be heartening to see more well-off citizens help their less fortunate neighbours with food or medicine or to observe the innovative ways in which digital technology has been utilized to develop community-level networks of food distribution.6 Yet many communities—whether in urban or rural settings—are more uniformly poor than others, and therefore, helpful wealthier neighbours may not even be available. Celebrating social resilience also risks depoliticizing the inept official handling of a major health crisis while diverting responsibility for addressing it from the government to the community.
In the end, this may normalize an environment whereby it is the predatory interests dominating the Indonesian political economy that make use of the opportunities stemming from the crisis. We have seen this in the recent passing of...