June 16, 2024


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Commentary: COVID-19 self-isolation is punishing the poor in Indonesia

CANBERRA: The spread of COVID-19 continues to unfold across the globe. More than 320,000 people worldwide have been infected. The disease has recorded a fatality rate of more than 3 per cent as 14,500 people have died from the disease.

The world’s third-largest democracy, Indonesia, has reported more than 500 cases with a higher fatality rate of over 8 per cent.

Since the outbreak, the Indonesian government has made public calls for people to self-isolate if they have symptoms. Self-isolation means staying indoors and completely avoiding contact with other people.

Public health experts have encouraged the public to self-isolate for at least 14 days to contain the rapid spread of the coronavirus. Research has shown that self-isolation is highly effective, especially when the majority of COVID-19 cases do not show symptoms.

READ: Commentary: The ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic could unfold

Echoing many health experts, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has suggested people “stay, work and pray at home” for two weeks to prevent further spread of the highly contagious disease.

Even though this preventive action is proven effective, it fails to take into account the fact that many poor and low-income people cannot afford to self-isolate. People working in informal sectors like online drivers, grocery store assistants and kitchen hands do not have the luxury of working from home as their jobs cannot be done remotely.

In 2019, people working in informal sectors accounted for 57.2 per cent of Indonesia’s workforce, or around 74 million people. As many as 25 million people live under the poverty line – that’s about 9 per cent of Indonesia’s population.

Two weeks of self-isolation means these people risk losing their sole income source.


The COVID-19 pandemic has hurt the economy worldwide. Many companies have reported losses as demand drops. With business slowing down, workers are facing greater risks of losing their jobs and income. It is happening in Indonesia.

READ: Indonesia invokes emergency measures in Jakarta, bonuses for doctors

Women wearing masks pass a vendor on a sidewalk of the main road after office hours, amid the sprea

FILE PHOTO: Women wearing face masks pass a vendor on a sidewalk of the main road after office hours, amid the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Jakarta, Indonesia March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

“Ohh so sad. No turis [tourists] no job,” posted one online driver on his social media just three days after the government declared COVID-19 a national disaster.

Online drivers are also prone to coronavirus infections as they meet many different people in the course of their work.

Gojek, one of the largest online driver platforms in Indonesia, has suspended the account of one of its drivers who was suspected of having COVID-19. But how will the driver get his income?

A similar story involves a 36-year-old casual domestic worker and mother from Yogyakarta, about 500 kilometres from the capital Jakarta.

“I can’t afford to self-isolate. I need to go to work,” she said. “No work means no money, and no money means no food for my kids.”

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These accounts illustrate the difficult situations facing many blue-collar workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. They cannot afford to take a day off, let alone two weeks.


To minimise discriminatory policies against poor people during the COVID-19 pandemic, the government should address the underlying and structural issues that create vulnerabilities in the first place.

This can be done, for example, by strengthening poverty eradication programs and establishing universal health coverage for low-income households.

A universal health coverage system will ensure everyone, regardless of their economic status, has access to high-quality health services and financial risk protection.

The current Indonesian system, known as BPJS, is not adequate to be called universal health coverage as it still requires people to pay a monthly premium. This could be a problem for informal and casual workers who are often unable to pay their monthly charge regularly, resulting in their memberships being cancelled.

A man wearing a protective mask prepares for pray at a mosque, after official discouragement of big

A man wearing a protective mask prepares for pray at a mosque, after official discouragement of big religious meetings during the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Depok, Jakarta, Indonesia, March 20, 2020. REUTERS/Yuddy Cahya Budiman

READ: Commentary: COVID-19 outbreak has overworked some but left more with little to do

The government must allocate a budget to provide primary health services to poor people. These services include providing access to health education, safe drinking water, nutrition, immunisation and treatment of communicable and non-communicable diseases.

In addition, the government should address more fundamental problems related to the changing nature of work during the pandemic.

One of the strategies required is to provide social assistance and social insurance for people working in informal sectors during the COVID-19 emergency period.

Without adequate support from the government, many of these people face a higher risk of losing their income or contracting the disease and then spreading the virus.

READ: Commentary: Don’t forget the vulnerable in the fight against COVID-19

Any public health measure to mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic must seriously consider the society’s various economic and social backgrounds to ensure they do not further punish already marginalised and vulnerable communities.

By strengthening the nation’s social welfare and health care systems, the government can help keep all citizens both physically and economically healthy and also protect the vulnerable during the pandemic.

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I Nyoman Sutarsa is a lecturer in Rural Clinical School, Medical School at the Australian National University. Atin Prabandari is a lecturer from the Department of International Relations at Universitas Gadjah Mada. Fina Itriyati is lecturer from the Department of Sociology at the same university.

This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.

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