It was March 2020 when COVID-19 began to turn the world upside down. I came home early from Bangladesh, when we had an on-going research project that was stopped immediately. This was followed by a mandatory 21 days of self-quarantine all alone in my apartment. It was a difficult situation for everyone.
While I was stuck in quarantine, surprisingly my ‘dad’ from one of our previous immersion studies in West Sumatra texted me, “Hey Riz, how are you? I saw the news about the COVID situation in Jakarta and we worry about you...” I did not realise that a text can be very powerful during those stressful times. I called him back. That day we spent hours talking about the condition both in Jakarta and in his village, and we wished for each other's safety.
When Empatika then decided that we wanted researchers to try and check-in with families from previous studies, I was more than happy to keep in touch with this family in Pasaman along with contacting some of my other previous study families. Through these initial conversations Empatika then had an opportunity to continue these check-ins through a full longitudinal study. Along with over 10 other Empatika researchers, we would each stay in touch with families from all over Indonesia throughout the first year of the pandemic. This post is a sample of some of the insights and a taste of the connections we developed.
(Empatika senior researcher Rizqan, who interacted with three families in three different provinces as part of this study)
Keeping in Touch with People's Experiences of the COVID-19 Pandemic
Our longitudinal remote insights gathering study finished its last round, focused on livelihoods and social assistance, in February 2021. From the insights gained over the nine month study period we produced three in-depth briefs and a summary brief, in addition to an initial brief from the early listening stage of the study and are hoping to be able to share these reports soon! This study aims to bring faces, stories, and highlight local perspectives into how families and other people across Indonesia have been dealing with changes and uncertainty during the pandemic, in both urban and rural contexts. The pandemic situation also gave us an opportunity for us to experiment with remote approaches and tools to qualitative research. Utilising the pre-existing relationships that Empatika researchers have with a variety of families across Indonesia, the study included a total of 45 families in 23 districts of Indonesia*. Over the study period families have shared their ongoing stories.
Built on trust, experimenting with remote tools
Our researchers knew the study participant families from previous immersion and other qualitative studies conducted between 2015 to 2020 when we had the opportunity to spend time with families in their own homes and their communities. This meant good existing rapport and relationships between researchers and families which provided a basis for open and trusted interactions. It also meant that researchers were familiar with the different contexts of these communities.
During the study, researchers made regular phone calls, texts, and had other remote interactions with families over the study period. Based on families' main concerns from the listening phase of the study, over the following three rounds of data collection we conversed about livelihoods and social assistance; education (including learning and social lives of children); and health. We complemented phone conversations and text messaging with other data gathering tools—our first experience using remote tools—including photo, audio and video sharing; group chats and discussions; and visual and story prompts. For example, texting with families through Whatsapp, we shared photos related to COVID-19 including from our own lives to ignite conversations and asked them to send back photos to us about the situation in their communities. With university students from different study locations, a few researchers formed a WhatsApp group to discuss together their multiple experiences and the challenges that they are facing during this pandemic. Some families recorded their own voice notes or videos from the prompt questions we provided. These tools were guided by thematic areas of conversations which were tailored and updated to each in-depth topic focus for each round of the study.
To situate the study insights, for the final summary brief we also prepared a timeline (shown below) which shows the context and influence of some of the policy responses of the Government of Indonesia alongside people’s concerns and changes that were happening in the study communities over the study period. These government responses included mobility and travel restrictions or suspensions, the closure of public services such as schools, village-level health facilities and posyandu sessions, along with the disbursement of emergency social assistance. Perceptions about these policies were also discussed with families throughout the study.
The following are some of the key insights from the study across the three primary topics (you can view the full briefs from this study on Our work page) :
Livelihoods and Social Assistance
Most families experienced a decline in income. Many migrants that returned home remained unemployed; informal labourers were significantly affected due to issues such as less infrastructure and renovation projects in villages; kiosk owners near schools suffered reduced sales because schools were closed; and farmers faced lower crop prices particularly from May to August 2020. Only farmers who own land, civil servants and salaried employees that felt least affected financially by the pandemic. (click read more to see the rest of this post)
Families coped with decreasing income with less daily spending such as eating simpler foods, reducing snacks, not giving pocket money for children and delaying large expenses (i.e. home construction or university enrollment).
Most families received social assistance from June to November 2020 including Bantuan Langsung Tunai (BLT) and Bantuan Sosial Tunai (BST). The amount and frequency varied across locations, from IDR 300,000 to 1.8 million total over one to three disbursements (at the time of the study). Payments were a welcome addition to families’ daily food consumption budget, although for many areas these were not provided quickly and were too small and unpredictable to support long-term recovery. Families also cited concerns with fairness and transparency and said that some people most in-need had been excluded, such as the elderly and single-income earners.
Village officials shared that although they had received directives to shift large portions of their village funding to COVID-related social assistance and programmes, they lacked guidance on different strategies for doing this and ways to tailor the response to their village’s particular situation.
Learning and Social Lives of Children
As schools closed in late March/early April 2020, all students began distance learning or ‘learning from home’ arrangements. Some schools adopted internet-based tools, primarily using WhatsApp to coordinate assignments, while others, particularly those in more rural or remote areas, had students or parents physically drop off and pick up assignments one or more times each week.
Students, teachers, and parents all struggled with the changes in education arrangements. Teachers shared that they had received little guidance on managing distance learning. Communication with teachers was primarily one-way with little opportunity for explanation or questions and feedback. Students shared that they were struggling more to learn and adolescents in particular struggled to stay engaged. Many parents, meanwhile, explained that they were unprepared or felt unable to help their children. For example, the mother of a SD grade 1 daughter who was lacking better support on learning how to read shared that, ‘I do not know how to do this (teach my daughter to read)’ and worried that she might be left behind.
Since August 2020 some children in rural or remote areas with few to no COVID-19 cases have started to come back to school but typically using a rota system and shorter class durations.
Reduced school hours left children with much more unstructured free time. Many parents worried that their children ‘do not learn anything at home’. The extra free time increased some adolescents' interest in working alongside their parents or in internships/apprenticeships, although in some cases this coincided with decreasing motivation for school.
Everyone wanted school to go back to ‘normal’. Families compared the decision to keep schools closed, or with more limited class time, with other public facilities that had already re-opened much earlier such as markets, local health facilities, posyandu and banks.
Health and Hygiene
Families in rural areas felt mostly disconnected from the health impacts of COVID-19 and generally assumed that their villages are safe compared to urban areas. At the time of the study only one of our families had direct experience with a family member or relative testing positive. As travel restrictions eased around July many people had stopped wearing masks around their communities and social events started to resume.
Families received most of their information about COVID-19 through social media but shared that this information could be confusing and often contradicted official information sources. This included many rumours about the COVID-19 vaccine which left people unsure about whether they would accept vaccination. Meanwhile, some local health service providers felt that the information they received along with associated communication materials were simplistic and repetitive without giving more explanation or details.
Uncertainty about COVID-19 and worries about testing positive and associated stigma caused many people to avoid COVID-19 testing and be less likely to visit health facilities such as a puskesmas** and hospitals. Families increasingly relied on village-level health providers, with many families contacting midwives informally via WhatsApp including for preventative health advice.
Posyandu*** sessions were suspended for 3-6 months in most of the study locations. Once restarted, many posyandu had more limited services than normal which included weighing and immunising babies but in some cases left out counselling, information sharing, and supplemental feeding programmes. Pregnant women were also told not to attend posyandu yet in many areas due to the risk of COVID-19.
Empatika was supported by UNICEF Indonesia to conduct this longitudinal study, expanding on our initial work early on in the pandemic in reaching out to families across the country about their experiences.
We will be sharing some additional reflections from this study in a couple of follow-up posts soon.
*These 45 families live in 21 rural communities and 6 periurban/urban communities. Including study participant families along with other community members, participants of the study included 67 school aged children, 11 teachers, 25 health workers, 8 village officers, and more than 100 community members.
**Puskesmas are sub-district level public health clinics.
***Posyandu is a monthly healthcare session in villages and communities which primarily aims to support pregnant women and mothers of children under five in providing health support, information, and counseling.