What it’s like to stay at home through COVID-19

Few things are more depressing than knowing you’ve done your best, only for things to still go wrong in the end. I’m no saint, but when you’ve been living pretty much like a hermit for the past 9 months, only to see the COVID-19 situation worsening each day, you’d feel as powerless as I do.

From forgoing music gigs and not celebrating Ramadan and Eid with my extended family and friends, I’ve had to give up on life’s usual pleasures since April 2020. It’s downright heartbreaking to see that despite all of my sacrifices, my news feed is still filled with stories of people living life as they see fit, ignoring COVID-19 health protocols in the process.

Life in Jakarta as a habitual concertgoer…

bon iver concert in jakarta 2020
I got to cross one thing of my bucket list when I saw Bon Iver live in January 2020
Image credit: @titaniadenanda

Ironically, when 2020 began, I had every reason to think that it was going to be a great year. As the resident music snob in my circle, I’ve made it a point to catch as many interesting gigs as I possibly can and over the years, Jakarta has seldom disappointed me. The gig I went to see in January of 2020 though might’ve been the best one yet.

After more than a decade of being caressed by his gentle falsetto through my earphones, I finally got to see Bon Iver in person when they made a stop in the city. That sense of togetherness I felt standing in a sea of strangers as Justin Vernon softly serenaded us with ‘Skinny Love’ up on stage will forever be etched into my memory.

samara by teater pandora
Teater Pandora’s original production, Samara, took place inside an actual bar with impromptu audience participation.
Image credit: @margareta_icha

Heading home after the show, feeling absolutely tired and invigorated all at once, I remember feeling excited about what the rest of the year might bring. I resolved to try to expose myself to more of the unfamiliar, making a mental note to catch more of Teater Pandora’s experimental plays after a one-time brush with them in 2019.

But just like Icarus who flew too close to the sun, any chance of having a good year, nay, having a semblance of a normal life even, went out of the window with COVID-19.

…followed by 9 months of living like a hermit

jalan sudirman during jakarta psbb lockdown
Jalan Sudirman, the city’s main thoroughfare, was practically deserted when PSBB kicked in.
Image credit: @kurniawanakbarkurniawan

No nation was spared from the havoc of COVID-19 but Indonesia, still battling the never-ending first wave of the pandemic, had it worse than most. The first domestic case was reported in March 2020 but it wasn’t until April that the government enacted the first large-scale social restriction measures, or PSBB. And as cliched as this might sound, life was never to be the same.

At first, I relished this momentary reprieve from Jakarta’s chaotic streets to catch up on the piles of unread books and Netflix shows that I’d been putting off. I was still firm in my belief that the pandemic would be nothing more than a blip, one that I’d look back with a hint of nostalgia ten years from now, but it didn’t take long for that sunny disposition to turn into a frown.

Eid came and went in May, and the occasion that is typically celebrated by Muslims around the country was instead filled with anxiety with the COVID-19 situation far from over. I knew then that we were all going to be in this for the long haul and if I wanted to come out of this with all of my mental faculties intact, I was going to have to find other ways to cope.

mac miller on tiny desk concerts
The late Mac Miller’s performance on Tiny Desk Concerts is two years old by this point, but it’s the one I keep coming back to.
Image credit: NPR

I eventually turned to music once again and while seeing virtual concerts from my 24-inch monitor is undoubtedly a massive downgrade, it’s helped keep me afloat. I’ve been a fan of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts since college, but while I used to tune in only when the guest lived up to my snobbish taste, I made it a point to catch every performance in 2020.

bts kpop group at tiny desk npr
Even without coordinated dance moves, BTS’ performance at Tiny Desk was still full of energy and infectious optimism.
Image credit: NPR

This eventually culminated in my first brush with BTS when they popped up for an acoustic set in September. Granted, an intimate and mostly seated performance is not how one should be inducted into the fandom but they were still magnetic even without the fancy choreography. It didn’t make me a convert (sorry, ARMY!) but I can definitely understand the appeal.

wait wait dont tell me podcast
Before COVID-19, Wait, Wait was taped live in front of a studio audience.
Image credit: @ellllelonnng

Still, I find that my best outlet for escapism is through indulging in a little bit of schadenfreude via the Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me news quiz podcast. Listening to the hosts and panels dunk on whatever was happening across the United States helps keep my mind off the COVID-19 situation in Indonesia.

Even after months of being a shut-in and having to basically live with my computer screen, the idea of “flattening the curve” became more and more of an elusive goal. At some point, the sentiment in Indonesia became less about eradicating COVID-19 and more about hoping that it wouldn’t reach your doorstep.

Rising cases and one protocol violation after another

rising covid cases in indonesia
Most concerning is the number of active cases, which has exponentially risen in the last few months amidst reports of overburdened hospitals around Jakarta.

Image credit: Indonesia COVID-19 Task Force

Despite the ongoing social restrictions, the number of COVID-19 cases in Indonesia has been consistently rising since April. Even though the government has advised citizens to stay at home and to observe health protocols if they have to go out, some Indonesians keep going about their lives as if COVID-19 doesn’t exist.

As with everyone who grew up inside the Indonesian school system, the phrase gotong-royong was pretty much drilled into my head since elementary school. The ancient Javanese phrase, which roughly translates to “share the load”, represents how Indonesians have adopted collectivism as a creed since ancient times but I think the dogma might’ve skipped a generation.

mcdonalds sarinah closing last day jakarta
The massive crowd gathering for an impromptu farewell at McDonald’s Sarinah drew much criticism on social media
Image credit: @ya_texmsh

This flagrant disregard for others came to a head in May with two major protocol violations; the impromptu farewell crowds at the closing of Indonesia’s first McDonald’s branch and the crowd gathering at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport for mudik, the annual tradition where Muslims head back to their ancestral home for Eid celebrations.

terminal 2 of soekarno hatta airport jakarta may 2020
A scene from Terminal 2 of Soekarno-Hatta International Airport back in May 2020 when the government loosened flight restrictions

Image credit: @jktinfo

Seeing my fellow Muslims openly disregard the government’s advice to postpone Eid just for a year until the pandemic blows over nearly pushed me to the edge. This was my first year where I had to spend Eid without seeing my family and my aunt’s divine feast of ketupat, rendang, and opor ayam, but I was more than happy to do so because I knew bigger things were at play.

joko mulyanto indonesia terserah slogan
Healthcare professional Joko Mulyanto vented his frustration on Twitter. His sign reads “Indonesia??? Whatever!!! Do whatever you want.”
Image credit: @jkmulyanto

Crystalizing our sentiments, healthcare professionals started the #IndonesiaTerserah social media trend which immediately went viral on Twitter. The hashtag roughly translates to “whatever, Indonesia” and I feel for them as whatever sacrifices I’ve had to make pale in comparison to what they’ve had to put up with – facing record numbers of hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

people welcoming rizieq shihab at jakarta airportMembers of the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) welcomed their leader, Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, from his self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia at the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport.
Image credit: Jawa Pos

Things went from bad to worse in November and #IndonesiaTerserah trended again when images of a crowd welcoming the cleric Muhammad Rizieq Shihab at the airport and his home in Jakarta went viral. Plenty of COVID-19 volunteers even resigned when the government, instead of punishing the protocol violators, handed out free masks and hand sanitizer.

rising indonesia covid cases
In a sign of the public’s increasingly irresponsible attitude with COVID-19, the number of daily new cases has consistently risen since May, reaching the 10,000/day mark early in 2021.
Image credit: Indonesia COVID-19 Task Force

In a truly gotong-royong society, their pleas, or the hundreds of healthcare workers that have passed away since the start of the pandemic, would’ve prompted a wake-up call. Instead, the number of new cases keep rising and I’ve honestly never felt more alienated from my fellow Indonesians than I do now.

Being punished for someone else’s mistake

greys anatomy covid doctors
Seeing the fictional doctors of Grey’s Anatomy struggling with COVID-19 helps contextualize just how much harder the situation is for real ones
Image credit: @greysabc

The medical drama Grey’s Anatomy was one of the many shows I’ve binged during PSBB. I remember vividly in a particular tearjerker of an episode where the lead character, Meredith Grey, had to treat a patient with a heart condition and despite doing everything absolutely right, the patient still ended up dead on the operating table.

I’m aware that certain things in life are just completely out of my control but knowing that all of my best efforts ultimately amounted to nothing is no less painful. Even as the statistics continually showed otherwise, I kept hoping, somewhat in vain, that the rest of the country would pull together and my adherence to PSBB protocols would eventually be rewarded.

rugby match new zealand october 2020
In New Zealand, in October 2020, 46,000 people were in attendance for a rugby match. No face masks, no social distancing rules.
Image credit: @allfiredupfireworks

As Indonesia continually struggled against the pandemic, New Zealand had managed to eradicate COVID-19. I distinctly remember coming down with a huge case of neighbor’s envy after seeing photos of a huge crowd attending a rugby match there, six months after our first PSBB was enforced. There were no social distancing rules, no face masks at said event, and all I could think of was how that should’ve been me. I’d done almost everything I’m supposed to do and yet my only reward so far is that I now have a near-encyclopedic knowledge of all sixteen seasons of Grey’s Anatomy.

three folks coffee shop west jakarta
The Three Folks coffee shop in West Jakarta is my refuge whenever I can’t focus at home and where a portion of this piece was actually written
Image credit: @so.felicious

I’m not infallible and I admit that I’ve gone against my better judgment and risked going to a cafe near where I live to catch up on work. But I’ve made sure to always adhere to health protocols by going alone, maintaining my distance from the other patrons, and only taking off my mask when I’m drinking or eating.

I want to emphasize here that I’m not doing this because I’m deathly afraid of contracting COVID-19 as I’m a healthy-ish twenty-something with a clean bill of health. No, I’m doing this because I know if I get infected, it’s the healthcare workers, or nakes, who are going to be cleaning up my mess and I absolutely do not want that on my conscience.

To put things in perspective, whatever sacrifices I’ve had to make in the past 9 months or so pales in comparison to what they had to put up with. Giving up on holidays or a night out in Senopati is child’s play compared to having to pull extra shifts and dealing with death and grief on a daily basis, and the last thing I want is to add to our healthcare workers’ misery.

happy new year 2021 from jakarta medical frontliner
Even healthcare workers can’t catch a break during New Year’s Eve. The writing on the wall reads, “Happy New Year 2021”.
Image credit: @dt.noise

A study in the UK showed that almost half of those working in the ICU have shown PTSD-like symptoms during the pandemic and I’m honestly surprised that number isn’t higher. As I spent New Year’s drinking the year away, I couldn’t help but feel guilty that the nakes had to spend theirs in the hospital treating a larger-then-normal number of patients who have been admitted for COVID-19.

Of course, each new year brings with it a clean slate and as 2020 came to a close, I allowed myself to feel cautiously optimistic for 2021. At the very least, I don’t think it’s possible for the situation to actually get worse but the official arrival of the COVID-19 vaccines does bode well for the rest of the year.

A glimmer of hope with vaccines rolling out in 2021

jokowi vaccinated
The COVID-19 vaccine rollout officially began on 14th January, 2021, as President Joko Widodo became the first Indonesian citizen to receive the vaccine.
Image credit: @jokowi

After several delays from the original November schedule, the COVID-19 vaccination rollout in Indonesia finally began in earnest in January. President Jokowi officially became the first recipient, with the rollout to the general public to be carried out in several stages throughout the year.

frontliner in indonesia getting vaccine
Nakes are the next in line to receive the vaccine
Image credit: @KemenKesRI

Healthcare workers are the first in line, with the vaccine being completely free of charge for all members of the public after much backlash against the original paid vaccination plan. The government has set a timetable of fifteen months for the rollout, so it’s still going to take a while until we can even begin to consider going back to our oblivious, pre-pandemic days.

Still, this is the first time in quite a long while where reading a piece of news didn’t fill me with existential despair, so that’s something. After months of having little else but my own thoughts as company, I’ll take any small victories I can get.

Giving ourselves a pat on the back for getting through 2020

I wish I could tell you how this hardship has given me a new perspective or how it has blessed me with life-affirming epiphanies but life isn’t a Disney film. Honestly, it took almost everything I had to keep myself from going full-blown Nietzschean and immerse myself in nihilism after this particularly intense experience.

For the past nine months, I’ve been simply trying to hold myself together and make it through one day at a time. I want to emphasize here that if, like me, you’ve spent the last 9 months with little to show for it other than merely surviving, you are no less commendable and you’ve earned yourself a pat on the back.

I know plenty of people who have started making money on the side or taken up a new hobby during the pandemic, but different people are wired differently. It has been one hell of a year and anyone who’s made it through the end without breaking down at least once while still adhering to PSBB protocols and staying at home fully deserves a medal.

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Cover image adapted from @fadil.rp and @ya_texsmh

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