If there is anything we know for sure about COVID-19, it is the fact that it does not discriminate against race, gender, or age. Anyone, in any part of the world, could get infected, and the continent down under Indonesia is no exception to this. In fact, the pandemic is not the first crisis that has happened to Australia in 2020. Earlier this year, the country sustained wild bushfires. This makes me curious as to how the government and the people in Australia manage to fight back COVID-19.
I talked to Feri Rahmat Chandra, a current student in the program of Master of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. In my interview with him, he highlighted several interesting happenings in Canberra in response to the pandemic.
In your observation, how have people in Canberra reacted to the arrival of the pandemic?
I am living in a suburb called Lyons, just 13 km to the south of Canberra’s central areas. Although Canberra is inhabited by only less than four hundred thousand people, unlike the crowded Jakarta, the chaos and confusion about the coronavirus and the disease among the people in Canberra are evident.
When the country announced its first case of COVID-19 at the end of January, there was a massive wave of people in the supermarkets. Panic buying happened, even worse than that of during the 2019-2020 Australian bushfire, as people were hoarding long-life products, such as tined ham, pasta, and, surprisingly, toilet papers. Whenever I enter a supermarket, there will be empty shelves and flyers telling customers that the stock is out with no guarantee that those products will be available next day. People also tend to use fewer public buses and choose to use their own vehicle or stay at home at all.
What has the local government done to slow down the spread of COVID-19?
By the time the WHO declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic on 11 March 2020, Australia had reported many local transmissions. One day after, Canberra revealed its first case of a patient with interstate travelling history. On 16 March 2020, the government of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) declared Public Health Emergency, followed by the declaration of Human Biosecurity Emergency by the national government two days later.
Initially, border entry was limited, allowing only specific country citizens. Now, foreign visitors are entirely banned as international arrivals only admit Australian citizens and their immediate family members. Those who just arrived from overseas have to do self-isolation at their primary home for fourteen days. Across Australia, anyone breaching the quarantine rules will be severely penalized, ranging from $11,000 fine in New South Wales and ACT (or six months of jail time) to $50,000 in Western Australia.
The federal cabinet has also imposed strict social distancing rules (1.5 metres between each other) by closing public gatherings, limiting the operation of restaurants to only offer takeaway services, shutting down bars, and urging people to stay at and work from home if possible. States and Territories are allowed to impose their own rules and sanctions.
In the ACT, the government is similarly rigorous, applying a hefty penalty for those caught off out of their house without any “essential reasons”, such as shopping for food, seeking medical care, and exercising. In the early days, it was hard to make sure that people abode by this rule, but it is just a matter of time that they know it is about their safety. As of 13 April 2020, there are 103 cases, 73 people recovered, and 2 lives lost in the ACT. However, due to those strict rules, thankfully, the number of new cases per day has fallen. For at least four days, there is zero case reported. I think the government has succeeded in keeping the population from being infected, thus not burdening the healthcare system.
How has the pandemic affected you academic and social life?
To minimize the infection rates, the university has moved our study mode from face-to-face interactions in class to online study. To have high-quality in-class participation, the university uses a video-conferencing platform called Zoom. Meanwhile, for some courses, the professor would record his lectures then upload them to the university’s learning platform called Wattle. Luckily, as the university admitted that this situation is unprecedented, many professors are offering changes to study requirements, particularly on assignment deadlines.
Our social life has, indeed, changed. For example, when doing grocery shopping, the entry of customers is limited, and this makes the queue a bit longer than usual. We definitely cannot enjoy dining out at our favourite local restaurants. Taking a public bus is also different now. We cannot board the bus from the front door but through the rear door, and only cashless payment is accepted to decrease infection rates between the driver and passengers.
Is there anything done by the Indonesian diaspora there to support each other?
I can say that the Indonesian diaspora in Canberra is quite tight-knitted. People in a lot of in WhatsApp groups are offering free foods and groceries for international students or Indonesian diaspora affected by the Australian government’s strict measures, particularly those who have been laid off by their employers. The Indonesian students are sending texts of support and checking on each other’s well-being. This is important since studying online and keeping the physical distance at the same time are really hard.
What personal measures have you taken to stay sane amidst everything that is going on?
First of all, I should have rules and acknowledge my own limits. Mental health, in line with the university’s policies, is always our priority. I am usually strict about studying schedule, but in the current situation, even a baby step should be deemed productive. I am trying to appreciate every inch of progress, no matter how slow it takes.
Secondly, I usually do my assignments and readings on campus because the atmosphere there helps me concentrate. Seeing students with varying study rituals in the libraries always boosts my motivation to be a good student. Now that I have to do it all at home, there are times when I hardly concentrate on my study. When this boredom hits, I usually try to take some time off by sunbathing in the backyard or taking a short hike to Oakey Hill Nature Reserve, just a few meters behind our home. I guess seeing wallabies and kangaroos in their habitat brings peace to my mind.
Do you have something to say to fellow Indonesian students abroad?
Put mental health on your top priority. Social distancing should not be a barrier for us to talk to each other. We, as students away from home, are experiencing calamities that we never know before. It is okay to feel bad when your routine is gone or to feel “sourness” when doing your study in isolation. However, when you start losing enthusiasm for many things, please reach out to somebody else. If you think you need professional hands, do contact your university’s counselling unit. After all, we need to be together in combating this pandemic.
Photo credit: Feri Rahmat Chandra
Columnist: Lavinia Disa
Editor: Yogi Saputra Mahmud