With Indonesia as one of Australia’s closest neighbours, the two countries share large expat populations – students, foreign national workers and permanent residency holders among other groups. This article is the second (check out the first here) in a two-part series by AIYA National exploring the experiences of Indonesian youth in Australia and Australian youth in Indonesia during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the time of part one’s writing in October 2021, the spread of COVID-19’s deadly Delta strain seemed to be slowing down, with what seemed to be a gradual return to normalcy and stability worldwide. Now, with the emergence of the highly contagious Omicron strain, it is timely to examine the experiences of Australian youth living in Indonesia, including accessing vaccines and support, and the difficulties they have faced during the pandemic.

This article is based on interviews with five Australian youth currently residing in Indonesia, for reasons as diverse as international study, temporary relocation, employment and permanent residency alongside an Indonesian spouse.

The perspectives in this series bring to light how universal so many aspects of youth experiences have been with COVID-19 regardless of geographical location, but also the complexities in how youth have interpreted, reacted and reflected on their unique personal journeys during the pandemic.

Hope of Coming Home

While there were many similarities between the experiences and emotions of Indonesian youth in Australia and Australian youth in Indonesia during the last two pandemic years, we found key differences in reasons for staying.

Part one of this series looked at Indonesian youth living in Australia during the pandemic. We found that the interviewees were primarily international students, and largely chose to stay in Australia for fear of being unable to re-enter due to a strict travel ban in effect at the time.

For Australian youth in Indonesia, the decision to stay was not always their own to make, and while the people we spoke to almost universally had wanted to return to Australia, they were unable to do so for a multitude of reasons.

Sophie*, a 25-year old from East Jakarta, told us that her and her family were not able to return to Australia despite an “almost constant” wish to do so due to the expense of flights and mandatory hotel quarantine. Amin and Hannah, young Australians residing in Jakarta and Yogyakarta respectively, wanted to return to Australia at the start of the pandemic. These costs, however, along with Australia’s arrival quotas and the length of quarantine, have been unaffordable, particularly for a younger demographic.

Another factor limiting the ability for Australian youth to return to Australia is the presence of family in both Indonesia and Australia. “I have heard of a lot of mixed nationality families having difficulties getting visas and having familial responsibilities in both countries makes returning difficult” said Sophie.

Both Sophie and Hannah have Indonesian spouses, and with Sophie being a recent mother the decision to stay in Indonesia to support their spouses came at the cost of in-person support and an absence of family visits.   

All our interviewees used social media platforms such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Skype to stay connected to family and friends back in Australia, however Samuel, a 28-year old residing in Jakarta, pointed out that “online communication is not the same as seeing people in person in terms of social support”.

With Omicron cases rising rapidly globally and numerous industries crippled, two of our interviewees noted that uncertain employment back in Australia made returning impossible. “We are hesitant for my husband to leave his stable job without knowing if/when he will be able to find employment in Australia”, said Hannah. 

Some respondents said they had obtained steady employment in Indonesia. “I’m lucky as I’ve had a regular income in Indonesia, but there was a lot of uncertainty if I were to return to Australia on being able to obtain employment particularly in 2020 with the harsh lockdowns” said Samuel, who works full-time in Jakarta. Others had managed to continue running a successful small business, focusing on translating work and operating out of their homes. 

On the 1st November 2021 Australian border restrictions were eased to allow fully vaccinated Australian citizens, permanent residents and immediate family to enter without an exemption or mandatory hotel quarantine. On the 21st of February 2022, national border restrictions were further eased to allow all international visitors. While these developments may enable many Australian youth living overseas to return home, there clearly still remains many financial, logistical and familial challenges.

A Road of Restrictions

With these numerous barriers preventing many young Australians from returning to Australia, our interviewees had to navigate in-country challenges during the pandemic in Indonesia.

For many, a key issue was gaining access to the Indonesian vaccination program that was rolled out for citizens from January 2021. Samuel said “I had a lot of trouble finding out how to get a vaccine, with little information given on the Australian Consulate website”. He noted that it appeared the Indonesian government struggled with coordinating the vaccination program, which was disappointing for a lot of non-citizen residents.

Similarly, Hannah explained that even with a permanent residency and her marriage to an Indonesian citizen, the initial vaccine roll-out “did prioritise Indonesian citizens, meaning permanent resident visa holders and other mixed-marriage families did face challenges with regards to regulations affecting them directly”. She noted that there was a “large variance in approach and timing in rolling-out vaccines in Jakarta versus the other provinces”, with a lack of national coordination.

By August 2021, Australia was plagued by a ‘second deadly wave’ of COVID-19 peaking 700 cases a day stemming from infectious leaks from hotel quarantine in Melbourne and Sydney. For Amin this meant that despite having booked flights back to Australia, the tightening of border restrictions as a response to the second wave resulted in their cancellation – he was “extremely disheartened at not being able to come back home and simply watch the crisis unfold from afar”.

While Indonesia didn’t enact lockdowns as an official response strategy to the same extent as the Australian government, our interviewees said that Indonesian residents were in “a kind of self-imposed lockdown on and off”, said Hannah. Sophie mentioned that Indonesia’s lockdowns were “never as severe or well enforced as Australia’s”, however her family chose to shelter in place for their own welfare for many months.

For Hannah and Sophie the closure of schools and childcare centres from March 2020 also meant becoming “isolated as sole carers, with very little social interaction”, and “having to home-school with almost no official support”. Hannah also identified that with the switch to working from home, staff have been expected to “be available and ready to work at all hours of the day, every day of the week, even late evenings and weekends, without any holidays”, which has really impacted quality of life and mental health.

Ultimately, access to vaccinations appeared to be a point of confusion and difficulty for all. Australia’s second wave meant yet another hurdle in returning for our interviewees. Closures of schools and child care centres for over 18 months combined with a working-from-home mandate meant excessive responsibility was placed on our respondents with families.

Bouncing Back Better

Our interviewees had a few suggestions for how they could have been better supported by both the Indonesian and Australian government during the pandemic. These suggestions are particularly timely as Indonesia, like the rest of the world, faces a rise in Omicron cases at the time of writing.

Sophie suggested that both Indonesia and Australia “need a better and more reliable quarantine system, as inner-city high-rise hotels with poor ventilation are ineffective”. At the time of writing, Indonesia still requires a 7-day hotel quarantine upon arrival if travelling internationally. In Australia, quarantine requirements vary by state and territory, with many still requiring a period of isolation in hotel quarantine.

Amin suggested that the health system and infrastructure in Indonesia should’ve been strengthened before the arrival of Omicron, with more proactive action taken. Sophie pointed out that it was “extremely stressful here during the deadly Delta wave mid-2021 when the health system collapsed. We didn’t really leave the house for several months except for my husband to buy groceries”.

It has seemed like Government-run financial aid projects have had immense implementation troubles, alongside difficulties coordinating the vaccination program and not enough information provided for Australians by the Consulate, Samuel and Hannah noted. While there have been Australian Government loans available for overseas Australians for emergency living costs and flights these are only available as a last resort and have a strict eligibility criteria according to the Smarttraveller website. This has meant they are accessible for very few. 

“I understand the logistical difficulties that both countries face in trying to handle the pandemic…” said Hannah, “…I think that the government and companies need to make more effective work from home policies to protect the rights of their workers.” Sophie also noted the difficulty for the Indonesian government in implementing effective national policies due to diverse social, religious and economic groups in Indonesia.

Our respondents understood that there were immense difficulties the Indonesian government faced, and none said that the pandemic had changed their perceptions of Indonesian government or society.

Assisting, Adapting, Accomplishing

While there were many difficulties faced by Australian youth living in Indonesia highlighted in this article, there has also been some positive learnings during the pandemic.

In Part One of this series, it was revealed that Indonesian youth in Australia had heard of multiple instances of racism against foreigners. However, all of our Australian youth in Indonesia respondents disclosed that they had neither experienced any racism first-hand related to the pandemic, nor heard of any other foreigners experiencing it.

Additionally, Sophie commented on the extensive community-support present in Indonesia. “This pandemic has been the first time I have experienced first-hand the community systems in Indonesia and the way friends and neighbours step up to help one another in times of need. I really admire this and I don’t think we do it to the same extent in Australia”.

Samuel noted that both he and others in his network were able to retain their jobs with regular incomes throughout the pandemic, with many workplaces adapting to working from home. He said that this “seemed to be very different from back in Australia, where it seemed everyone he knew were losing their employment”.

Hannah pointed out the resilience of the Indonesian people – “the pandemic highlighted how resilient Indonesian society is, and how infinitely adaptable people are here – finding ways to survive in the most difficult of circumstances”.

Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the resilience of people and governments globally, and despite the challenges faced by these interviewees, young Australians continue to persist in making a life abroad. With the Omicron variant still raging globally and the possibility of other variants emerging, the perspectives of youth in both Indonesia and Australia are crucial in reflecting on the pandemic’s impact, and ways forward.

*Note: All names used in this article have been pseudonymised to protect the anonymity of interviewees. 

Written by Kate Langley. Editing by Hirzi Laksana, Gillian Scott, Jaya Pastor-Elsegood and Audrey Prasetya.