As a response to the global corona crisis, authorities all over the world set strict health protocols for travellers. Focusing on the case of China, anthropologist Biao Xiang argues that the COVID-19 epidemic has triggered grid reactions: “Residential communities, districts, cities and even entire provinces act as grids to impose blanket surveillance over all the residents, minimize mobilities, and isolate themselves.” Grid reactions, he argues, are however not about community grids only; the term more generally refers to all-out, undifferentiated, war-like strategies to combat the virus. In this blog, I share how such grid reactions played out when I travelled from Amsterdam to Semarang, Indonesia, in the end of 2020, and show how they influenced mobility in sometimes unexpected ways.
The first moment a grid reaction influenced my trip was on December 23 2020, when the Indonesian government announced the tightening of health protocols for international travellers. The new protocols disturbed my travel arrangements, and those of many others. After the announcement, WhatsApp and Facebook groups of Indonesians in the Netherlands filled up with questions of people who were clueless about ways in which the new protocol would affect, for instance, the boarding policy. To get on board, travellers needed to show a negative result from a PCR test taken not more than 48 hours before departure. This was much shorter than the previous seven day term.
Such revised time frames not only triggered responses by passengers, but also by corporations embracing a combination of new health regulations and a persisting demand for a high level of mobility as a new market. In the Netherlands, private labs offered a guaranteed 24-hour result for a PCR test, charging €85 to €185 per person. In Indonesia, testing service centers also grew and many of these maintain a questionable reputation. The Indonesian government even cracked down a syndicate selling forged health certificates. These corporations both respond to, and become a part of, the grid reactions, sometimes at the cost of the goal of controlling the virus.
Once I got on the plane, I found out that the government announcement led many people to cancel their trip. I had the whole row and line for myself, and the only people I saw in my part of the plane were a family of three. In total, there were about 50 passengers occupying 318 seats. Through social media, I found out that some people who were supposed to be on the same flight decided to wait until the regulation would change again.
As we landed at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta, everything looked normal until I approached the baggage claim and customs clearance. There, the Indonesian Air Force Infantry stood along an exit lane, playing the role of what Xiang Biao calls the ‘surveillance blanket,’ and demonstrating what he calls a “war-like” approach to “combating” the virus. The infantry escorted us, potential ‘virus importers’, to a connecting bus to the quarantine facility. Ironically however, the passengers had to wait up to 30 minutes in the packed bus before it departed. During this time, physical distancing was impossible to do.
(Photo:After four days of quarantine, the Ministry of Health’s staff (fifth from left) finally explained the programme. An army officer stood in the background, monitoring the process.)
Following yet another policy update, all international travelers were taken to a hotel for mandatory quarantine despite their negative test results. Until the second day at the hotel, we had no idea what to do. Despite the massive media reports regarding quarantine, authorities did not respond to questions surrounding quarantine programs. Were we going to have another PCR test? Could we go to an airline desk to reschedule our connecting flights? How long did we have to stay in the facility? The only certain answer I received was: “Sir, we will later inform you once we have received further instruction.” So, although the grid reaction appeared to be strong, it was very unclear. Furthermore, for passengers like me, Jakarta was not our end destination. Our journey was still long, and we needed to prepare for another locality’s grid reaction, which was also still unclear to us.
Next to being unclear, the quarantine process was also ambiguously loose. I could flee from the facility anytime without being easily noticed by the hotel authority. A traveler from my cohort even managed to visit a nearby grocery store. Strange enough, the government even allowed quarantine hotels to take regular guests alongside the quarantined, and the soldiers controlling the quarantine did not notice which passers-by were on quarantine and who were not.
After five days, and after taking two new PCR tests, I was released when an officer handed me a health certificate signed by the head of the COVID-19 Task Force. While handing it over, he said, “if you encounter any problems at your destination, please show this. Have a safe trip!” Problems that he mentioned refer to experiences of travellers earlier that month, who were denied entry to their destinations because of these localities’ grid reactions. Whereas the government triggered the emergence of these reactions, it now also prepared a letter to ease them.
In conclusion, I found that during my journey grid reactions were omnipresent. Next to severely restricting mobility, the grid reactions caused more unintended consequences, and some of these ironically allowed mobility to continue. Regulations were often very unclear, and surveillance blankets were messy and permeated with holes. This allowed for mobility in and out of quarantine spaces and severely reduced the surveillance blankets’ effectiveness. Mobility was furthermore maintained by actors with commercial interests, sometimes in illegal ways that went straight against measures to stop spreading the virus. I can easily conclude that, because of these findings and experiences, this trip amidst the peak of pandemic was the strangest trip I ever made.
Pamungkas (Yudha) Dewanto is currently a PhD candidate in Social and Cultural Anthropology at VU Amsterdam. He is interested in migration, ethnicity, and overseas laborers in Southeast Asia. For Standplaats Wereld, he previously wrote “Religious extremism: vulnerability and resistance among Indonesian migrant workers in Asia”.