Presented by Noer Syamsia, ARCSEA member and also a member of Indonesian grassroots women’s organisation SERUNI in the online forum Apa Kabar Anaku (How are you, my child), sponsored by ARCSEA.
The number of COVID-19 cases in Indonesia continuously increases. Government sources reported that on August 17 of last year, the total number of COVID-19 cases was at 3,892,479 and the death toll is at 1,180. At the onset, the virus was only detected in urban areas, but it has now spread to villages in the rural areas as well. The age range among COVID-19 positive individuals is also getting wider. The spread of new variants has caused the virus to spread even among children when initially there were none.
The spread of the COVID-19 virus is also increasing the spread of fear. According to the Indonesian Pediatric Association (IDAI), the 351,336 COVID-19 cases in children between the ages of 0-18 compose 12.5% of total cases. This means that one in eight confirmed COVID-19 cases is a child or minor. The mortality rate is at 3%-5%. The 777 child deaths due to COVID-19 in Indonesia is the highest in the world, half of whom were under five.
COVID-19 is especially dangerous to individuals with low immunity, poor nutrition, and practicing poor sanitation, making the poor the most vulnerable group. The high number of COVID-19 cases in the Global South is greatly influenced by this condition. The crisis situation has become sharper for people when social restrictions imposed to control the spread of the virus can no longer be tolerated. Social restrictions resulted in decrease in household incomes. The quality of life among the people has also declined. The situation further increases the level of risk of transmission to children. Children are far more vulnerable, made worse by inadequate health facilities. There is no vaccine for children and there is no special hospital for children with COVID even as they are isolated and separated from other people including their parents.
Government response and policies
After the earliest discovery of the COVID-19 virus in Wuhan, China, it quickly spread to other countries. Several countries immediately made early protection efforts to prevent the virus from entering their borders, but ultimately they were proven insufficient. The Indonesian government did not take any early action and issued a statement that Indonesians are safe from COVID-19 instead. A month into the pandemic, President Joko Widodo issued a Government Regulation on Large-Scale Social Restrictions. The PSBB action shut down schools and workplaces and imposed restrictions on religious activities and public places or facilities. This policy did not succeed in preventing the virus from spreading to all regions. However, it had a major impact on all aspects of peoples’ lives. The economy was devastated; people lose income; social and cultural life is disrupted; education has lost its substance; people’s psychology is terrorized; and there is violence everywhere.
The failure of the PSBB policy and its impact on the national economy was made worse by President Jokowi’s emergency public activity restrictions (PPKM). For the people, it had the same impact as the previous policy but made worse by the length of the pandemic and the government’s inability to cope with its effects.
The impact on children’s education
The social distancing policy is also imposed on the education sector. For almost two years, there is heavy reliance on the internet for education due to the online learning system despite the fact that internet-infrastructure is not evenly developed in all regions. In addition to the problem of internet access, ownership of devices is also an issue. For the majority of Indonesians who work as farmers and laborers, devices are extremely expensive. The cost of an internet-capable device is almost equal to one month’s income. At the same time, the procurement of such devices is also burdensome, especially if there are two or more children in one family who have to study remotely. Apart from the devices, there is also a need to purchase credits for accessing the internet.
The government provides a free study data plan for students, but this service is not evenly distributed and is available only for students in big cities. Students from rural areas, the majority of whom belong to families living in poverty, do not receive the free internet data plan assistance so the allocation of money to purchase internet-access credits is an additional burden. There is also assistance for teachers, but the amount is not as large as it is in Java.
For the research conducted by Smeru in 2020, teachers in Java use various digital applications for online learning but some teachers in rural areas outside of Java have to walk up to 30 kilometers just so they can teach a student for an hour. There are also teachers who only give weekly assignments without explaining the learning material in the hope that students will learn independently. The government does not touch on this problem of inequality and prefers to continue disbursing internet data plan assistance of up to IDR 7.2 trillion. Still, based on the same research, the proportion of teachers in rural areas outside Java who receive assistance from schools is very small compared to teachers in urban areas outside Java as well as teachers in urban and rural areas within Java. As a result, very few children are given assistance while those who do not have a smartphone or those in areas where there is no internet access can only bite their fingers. “In these conditions, children will have a tendency to learn very little or learn none at all, and this can affect a child’s decision to stay in school.”
Online learning is also burdensome for parents who have to provide learning support to their children. For parents who have to go out to work, accompanying their children to study is not something they can do. Moreover, most people, especially in rural areas, have a low educational background thereby increasing the burden for parents, especially mothers. Disputes between children and parents and between parents themselves are arising in homes due to problems with regard to learning assistance. This condition makes children reluctant to learn.
Not all learning materials have instructions on teaching, so the learning process is left to the children and their parents. This is a new burden for parents, especially farmers and workers who are uneducated, or cannot accompany their children to learn because they have to go out to work. Not a few children are forced to drop out of school because of this problem.
The results of the united Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) survey noted that 1% or 938 children aged seven to 18 has dropped out of school due to the impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Of these, 74% of children drop out of school because they have no money to continue. As many as 12% drop out due to lack of motivation and 3% of children drop out of school because of environmental influences.
Children who drop out of school because they are satisfied with their current education and work are 2% each. Meanwhile, 8% of children drop out of school for other reasons. While the UNICEF findings have not shown actual figures, the reality on the ground is that more and more children are dropping out of school and the participation of children entering new schools is decreasing. In the village where Seruni works, dozens of children have dropped out of school during the pandemic. Almost all are because of issues related to the cost of education.
Changes in learning patterns, from direct interactions between students and teachers to using gadgets, do not only affect students’ mastery of lessons, but it is also very influential on the psychological and emotional development of children. Children interact more with screens and the virtual world and there is only limited interaction with other people. Children are becoming dependent on gadgets, games, and social media. Even the provision of free data plans and learning applications does not lighten the burden because they still purchase internet credits to ensure that they remain connected to the internet even outside of online classes. The children become addicted to the internet and this has an effect on their emotional and psychological development.
During the pandemic, social distancing is enforced and children’s freedom to play outside is limited. Opportunities for self-development through experimentation with nature and the environment are restricted. Children become passive, apathetic, and become insensitive to their surroundings. Children see the wider world from inside their homes through gadgets and television and most of what they learn about life are through these media.
The government’s delay in dealing with COVID-19 and its effects have created distrust in the community over government policies. The implementation of PPKM is not effective because of the explanations above. The distrust of the government is counteracted by the action of the people to help others by doing online charity. The people’s campaign to help others overcome COIVD-19 by raising funds, food assistance, funeral volunteers, actions by medical personnel, and other humanitarian interventions are rife among the people in various places.
One of the things SERUNI does to deal with situations like this is to create a learning studio for children in rural areas. This learning studio involves teaching staff from SERUNI activists and students. It is open to the children of farmers and plantation workers on oil palm plantations in Riau. At least, this learning studio can help children to love learning and relieve parents who have to go to work.
Among women, SERUNI campaigns for food crop agriculture by involving women and children. For children, this activity is a diversion from their dependence on gadgets.