In the midst of increasing cases of COVID-19 in Indonesia and its status as the epicenter of the pandemic, the poems of poet and activist Putu Oka Sukanta reflect how the pandemic has changed human relations and how to maintain optimism and resilience.
As a former political prisoner – Putu was jailed for 10 years without trial during the Suharto regime and one of the few surviving survivors of the 1965-1965 mass violence – he is well aware of the government’s shortcomings in protecting the most vulnerable groups in society.
Official data shows as of August 4 100,636 people have died from COVID-19. However, the data monitoring group Lapor COVID-19 suspects that many death data are not recorded by the government. About 30% of these deaths occurred in July.
The government was late in taking decisive action to control the virus out of concern for the economic impact of the strict restrictions. In March 2020, the government instructed Large-Scale Social Restrictions (PSBB). Its implementation depends on local government and is inconsistent. Now, the government is implementing the Implementation of Community Activity Restrictions (PPKM) until August 9 for Java and Bali to reduce the number of COVID cases.
Putu’s age is 82 years. He has a heart problem. With this condition, he isolated himself for the last few months. Several members of his family recently contracted COVID-19.
When he was in prison, Putu dreamed of being alone. Now, despite living with five family members, a sense of loneliness hits. He felt tired and bored quickly, could not sit too long to write and create.
Even so, he continued to write, as in the poem “I Hope”:
hear a knock on the door
which I always close
even if it’s not locked
see the shadows
appears and disappears in the window pane, just
just the wind
welcome the cold drizzle
hear a knock on the door,
otherwise, enough shadows pass
in the window
so I can tell
happy feeling miss you
As a political activist, Putu cannot ignore the military coup in Myanmar.
Inspired by women who hung up their underwear to prevent soldiers from pursuing demonstrators, she wrote the poem, “Myanmar Military Against Women’s Panties”, calling out to her friend, human rights activist Galuh Wandita in a snippet of poetry that reads:
My female best friend in the world, send it
your used underwear to Myanmar,
(better stained with blood)
made a waving flag,
cut the path, welcome and conquer the hunters.
Putu said to me: “I am a political person. Writing about politics is kind of a reflex.”
He says now he is affected by emotions. He let the urge to write overwhelm him, determining when to write. “I’m more sincere, surrender.”
As a former political prisoner, having his own money is important for his sense of independence and inner peace. While in prison, he learned acupuncture from a friend. He is now a herbal medicine and acupuncturist.
Putu opens an acupuncture practice at her home, meeting patients three times a week and prescribing herbal medicines. He takes care of herbal plants with his wife in a garden in South Jakarta called Taman Sringanis. But he closed his practice in March 2020 due to the pandemic.
He missed the busy clinic. “This house is a noisy house,” he said. “Patients are like books. I learned from them. They give me stimulus, dialogue, and so on.”
Students, buskers, and beggars often come to his house to get information or help. “Suddenly, quiet, stupefied. Natural sadness occurs. Feeling lost. Feeling isolated.”
For Putu, self-isolation bears some resemblance to his experience as a political prisoner. In prison, the voices of “goats, children, etc.” are also not heard. But despite losing his rights, in prison, Putu feels he has a goal, a “common enemy” to face, namely the New Order.
With this pandemic, now he has private rights, but can’t use them [karena pandemi]. “In my heart, I asked myself, what can I do in a situation like this.”
As a health practitioner, Putu sees the need to develop a strong health system and use preventive measures.
He criticized the government’s approach of focusing on curing disease, rather than prevention through good nutrition, and a good health care system. “People deal with disease by curing it, looking for a cure, rather than how to prevent it, so that it doesn’t happen.”
Surviving the minimal health services in prison, Putu saw the Indonesian people trying to increase their immune system to prevent falling ill in the midst of a health system that was in a crisis situation.
“The idea that food is medicine, medicine is food is not something new, but it becomes even more important knowing that COVID attacks people with weak immunity,” he said.
Farming is now a hobby and a way to increase income in the capital city of Jakarta.
Putu’s savings began to dry up, “With my savings I can live for a year. [Pandemi ini] It’s been more than a year, right?”
Royalties from selling his books slowed. In the midst of a pandemic, books have become a luxury item and publishers are struggling. “Our income is reduced, while we can’t reduce expenses such as electricity.”
A survey by the research institute SMERU last year showed that around 74% of households’ income had decreased due to the pandemic, but the cost of living continued to rise. The workers at Taman Sringanis were not fired, but their salaries were paid in installments.
This pandemic causes severe economic and social losses, threatens the sense of human dignity, and exposes the weaknesses of Indonesia’s health system.
In the midst of all this, various fundraising efforts to help the victims have sprung up.