As governments take unprecedented action to contain the spread of COVID-19, the pandemic has significantly disrupted worldwide market economies, including those at a local level.
The pandemic is impacting our food systems, weakening economies and increasing global food insecurity.
In Indonesia, falling incomes as a result of government-imposed restrictions on movement and travel have been accompanied by decreased household purchasing power and falling food availability in cities.
Global assessments indicate that urban consumers can be more vulnerable to crisis-related food insecurity because of their reliance on bought, rather than self-grown, food. Other research underlines the importance of informal food networks for urban food security during and after a crisis.
In Jakarta, this has led to an increase in informal food networks. And its women are playing an essential role in creating, extending and sustaining these networks using digital technology.
Although the Indonesian government has instituted some social security measures, a recent survey by Statistics Indonesia found that more than half of respondents reported increases in food-related expenses as a result of reductions in food availability and shifts in dietary habits.
Within the city of Jakarta – excluding its adjoining municipalities — as of early August, the total reported number of confirmed cases was 26,193 with 940 deaths. Given the relatively low rate of testing, these official figures are likely to be under estimates.
At the same time, the pandemic is complicated by problems stemming from severe flooding earlier this year.
As a result, the economic impact of the pandemic and the flooding has been significant for households in Jakarta.
In mid-April 2020, Indonesia’s Ministry of Manpower recorded that more than 449,500 workers had been forced to take leave without pay and, according to J-PAL, by early July 2020 more than 50 per cent of people had lost their jobs.
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of informal food networks in Jakarta, and the essential role women play in creating and sustaining these networks.
Examining how urban women use these networks also highlights the increasingly blurred boundaries between formalised paid work and the informal care done by women to ensure food security for their households and communities.
Informal food networks include activities like urban agriculture and marketing at street stalls, to neighbourhood composting to deal with household waste.
Women are key – as consumers, producers and distributors – they develop and sustain these networks across urban communities.
They are agile in feeding their families and in finding supplementary sources of income during the COVID-19 pandemic. And their social media networks have played a key role in enabling the buying, selling, distributing and donating of food.
For instance, in March of this year, a tweet informed people that vegetable vendors had created a WhatsApp (WA) group made up of mothers in the neighbourhood that could be used to order, purchase and deliver food. That tweet went viral with more than 8,200 re-tweets and 14,600 likes.
The role of this digital connection in facilitating successful informal food networks in Jakarta is not surprising.
There are approximately 175.4 million internet users in Indonesia, making 338.2 million mobile connections per month. Almost half of them are women.
Even before COVID-19, using social media to source goods and generate income was increasingly common for women in urban Indonesia. But the pandemic has advanced these efforts and highlighted their import.
Modifying existing informal food networks through online communication has become common across Greater Jakarta’s urban neighbourhoods.
Food networks have provided income-generating opportunities for women and their families and acted as an economic safety net.
For example, following the government’s instruction to stay at home – ‘#dirumah aja’ – one mother of three who sold fruit salad and cooked meals, began selling frozen food to people living in East Jakarta. She now takes orders through online food markets – GrabFood and GoFood. During the pandemic, her orders have generated an income of US$250 per day.
Office worker, Astrid Safiera, began an online seafood business with her husband using Twitter to market their goods and ride-service apps for deliveries.
She creatively promoted the business by replying to a tweet by former Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti – a high-profile social media user.
In Bekasi, on the outskirts of Jakarta, mother Dian Lestari shifted from supplying red onions to selling cookies. As the Islamic fasting month arrived, she also began selling cakes, garlic bread and dim sum, promoting her goods through Instagram, existing social contacts and word-of-mouth.
Dian’s initial capital was US$15 but within a month her net income from baking surpassed her monthly income as an employee.
COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted women workers.
They are over-represented in sectors hit hardest like hospitality, education and care. A recent report by PROSPERA (Australia Indonesia Partnership for Economic Development) indicates that women represent the majority of workers in education (61 per cent) and hospitality (59 per cent).
A majority of women (74 per cent) in hospitality also work under insecure arrangements.
Conditions within households are no less dire.
In Asia and the Pacific, women spend 4.1 times more time than men doing unpaid care work. Around 39 per cent of Indonesian women who do paid work have at least one primary-school aged child, but crucial household and care work go uncompensated and largely unnoticed.
Change is needed and the women in greater Jakarta creating and digitising informal food networks to support their food and income requirements is just one example of positive change.
However, creative solutions like this, if not unpacked fully, could mask the destructive impacts of flexibility — precarity, self-exploitation and structural injustice — as ‘resilience’.
These disruptions push parents to include their children in the digital workspace—albeit by accident. But this statement disguises the constant competition between unpaid and paid labour that usually disadvantages women.
The ability to creatively manage feeding a household amid the impacts of a crisis should be investigated further and included in policy. But, this is not enough. Fundamental and systemic changes to labour markets and food systems are also needed.
A version of this article was first published on the Melbourne Asia Review.
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