Recover, but truly together

As the government prepares to lift all Covid-19-related public-activity restrictions nationwide at the end of the year, Indonesia must learn the lessons.


Two girls sit in a pushcart as they ask for alms from passersby along a street in Jakarta on Sept. 23, 2021. (AFP/Goh Chai Hin)

December 27, 2022

JAKARTA – As the World Health Organization hopes COVID-19 will no longer be a public-health emergency in 2023, vulnerable Indonesians have to face a tougher road to recovery compared to fellow citizens who are in the higher-income group.

A recent study has found that vulnerable families, including households with disabled members or those whose breadwinners are women, are facing more challenges to bounce back from the pandemic compared with more well-off families.

This is a saddening finding, but not a surprising one.

The study published last week by UNICEF, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Australia-Indonesia Partnership for Economic Development (Prospera) and Jakarta-based SMERU Research Institute, concluded that “the wealthiest households were emerging from pandemic-induced economic setbacks while the rest were stagnating or even deteriorating”.

Researchers suggest that there is a trend toward a widening wealth gap. The relaxation of mobility restrictions since late last year has helped bring down the poverty rate in Indonesia, but that has done nothing to improve income inequality.

Statistics Indonesia reported in July that while the domestic poverty rate has dropped, the domestic inequality rate exceeds the pre-pandemic level.

Just a reminder: President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said in 2017 his administration would focus on reducing social and economic divides. “Disparities should be cut down further, both between the wealthy and the poor and also between regions,” the President said then.

While devastating almost every conceivable aspect of our lives, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented the opportunity to turn government commitments into action as Jokowi is approaching the end of his term in office.

Changes have happened, but alas only for the worse. The study highlights how vulnerable families are also more likely to resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with the economic pressure. These include borrowing money from relatives, friends or loan sharks, selling or pawning their belongings and even eating less to reduce their daily expenditure.

The research also found increasing trends of gender inequality, with women often having to juggle between job and home. Indonesia is not alone in this predicament. COVID-19 has disrupted social, economic and political life across the Asia-Pacific region, with particularly detrimental impacts on women.

Several studies have observed significant rises in domestic and gender-based violence, reduced access to reproductive-health services and increased income insecurity during the pandemic in the region.

Many studies have also noted how during the pandemic, communities across the nation stepped up to ease the hardship faced by many lower-income families. We second observers who suggest that this social resilience springs up over the failure of government institutions to respond to the needs of the most-vulnerable members of society.

While WHO has said that there is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, it has warned the virus is here to stay for the years to come.

As the government prepares to lift all COVID-19-related public-activity restrictions nationwide at the end of the year, Indonesia must learn the lessons. Policymakers need to set their priorities straight as we gradually look ahead to recovery from COVID-19.

We should stand for social justice for all, not just a few.

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