For the homeless in Jakarta, COVID-19 means more economic desperation and health risks

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ANAK EMAK: For days, Dede has not been feeling well. Her throat felt dry and sore, her coughing incessant and her muscles ached. She developed a fever the night before, her ageing body shivering in the cold, damp air of a rainy season evening.

ANAK EMAK: For days, Dede has not been feeling well. Her throat felt dry and sore, her coughing incessant and her muscles ached. She developed a fever the night before, her ageing body shivering in the cold, damp air of a rainy season evening.

This was the second time that Dede, a septuagenarian who has been sleeping rough on the streets of Jakarta for the past three decades, showed signs of a COVID-19 infection.

Despite living just a few hundred metres from a drive-thru testing facility, she refused to get tested.

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The cost of a rapid antigen test there is three times what she earns daily from collecting empty plastic bottles littering the pavements or washed ashore on the banks of a nearby river which she sells to a recycler.

“If I spend my money on a test, what would I eat?,” Dede, who only agreed to provide her first name, told CNA in front of a vacant three-storey building where she likes to sleep at night.

“Even if I test positive, where would I go? If I am in isolation, how will I be able to earn money to buy food?”

Many of them have seen their little income shrink even further. Those who are busking and panhandling have seen the number of people willing to spare them change dropping dramatically, as Jakartans are encouraged to stay at home to curb the spread of the virus.

At the same time, more have become homeless as they lost their livelihoods.

Public health experts said that the homeless are more susceptible to being infected with COVID-19 as they live in crowded areas with poor hygiene and sanitation. They spend most of their time being exposed to the elements and are sometimes malnourished which can lower their immune system. Access to vaccines is also an issue.

Social agencies have stepped up their efforts to help this group of people but they face various challenges including distrust and lack of public awareness.

According to figures compiled by the Jakarta Social Affairs Agency, the number of these so-called “people with social welfare problems” is on the rise.

In Central Jakarta, one of the city’s six municipalities and regencies, for example, the agency reported that there were 256 people living on the streets in 2020. By September 2021, the figure rose to 1,377.

However, activists said that the figure is only the tip of the iceberg as the agency only recorded those who have been found loitering and taken to government-run shelters. They said that the majority of those who are homeless in the capital city remain undetected.

With the pandemic, money is tighter than ever for the low income.

In September 2019, before the pandemic began, Indonesia had 24.7 million people living below the national poverty line, according to data from the Indonesian Bureau of Statistics.

Two years later, the figure grew to 26.5 million. Indonesia defines those living below the poverty line as being in households that earn less than 486,000 rupiah (US$34) monthly.

Waste picker Dede said that every time the government imposed a lockdown, money would be even harder to come by.

“People are afraid to give money to us during the pandemic. Before, there would be office workers giving me food. But now, no one comes to work anymore. If the offices are empty, what are we going to eat?,” she said.

Sv388 - Although the government has not imposed a lockdown amid the Omicron wave, many offices have started to tell their employees to work remotely as the caseload grows dramatically this month.

Throughout this week, Indonesia logged around 60,000 new cases every day, bringing the total caseload to more than five million.

“Things have been quiet recently. The offices are mostly empty. It has been a struggle for me these past few weeks,” Dede said.

Walter Simbolon, an advocacy manager at charity group Sahabat Anak, said he has noticed more people living on the streets since the pandemic began.

“Many informal workers are seeing their incomes reduced to pretty much zero,” he told CNA. Meanwhile, he added, there are many formal workers who have been laid off and now have to work in the informal sector by selling tissues or drinks on the streets of Jakarta.

“They are all struggling because tourist areas are closed and crowds are being discouraged and dispersed by authorities. Meanwhile, people wouldn’t buy anything from them because they are afraid (of getting infected),” he said.

However, calculating the exact number of people living on the streets can be hard, public policy expert Trubus Rahadiansyah told CNA.

“Documentation for these people has been minimal. Even before the pandemic, the marginalised are often forgotten and ignored. At the same time, they also don’t want to expose themselves and remain invisible. This is why data on them is hardly ever valid and reliable,” the lecturer from Jakarta’s Trisakti University said Judi Slot Joker123.

“Whatever the true number is, you can be sure that the number has grown because of the pandemic.”