Of course the Corona-crisis did also throw a spanner in the Dutch-Indonesian project Regional Studies. In this blog the Indonesian research coordinators Yulianti and Abdul Wahid reflect on the impact of the Corona-crisis on their work. Next, their Dutch counterparts Ireen Hoogenboom and Martijn Eickhoff share some of their experiences.
Gotong Royong (mutual cooperation) – project Regional Studies during the Corona-crisis
by Yulianti, Abdul Wahid, Ireen Hoogenboom and Martijn Eickhoff
One of the main problems regarding the existing historiographies of the Dutch-Indonesian conflict in the period 1945-1949 is the lack of interconnection. Dialogue between Indonesian and Dutch historians is limited and there is a lack of knowledge concerning the different regional dimensions of the conflict. Therefore, the ‘Regional Studies’ project seeks to stimulate exchange between Indonesian and Dutch historians by sharing sources and literature, discussing concepts and approaches, and reading and discussing each other’s work. Through yearly conferences in Indonesia, and mutual research visits, the project developed into an energetic Indonesian-Dutch research group. Yet, the Corona-crisis did throw a spanner in the works, at least so it seemed at the start. In this blog the Indonesian Regional Studies research coordinators Yulianti and Abdul Wahid reflect on the impact of the Corona-crisis on their work. Next, their Dutch counterparts Ireen Hoogenboom and Martijn Eickhoff share some of their experiences.
At first, the Covid-19 epidemic seemed distant from the city we are living in, Yogyakarta, Indonesia. However, this situation rapidly changed with the increase of the global spread of the virus and after the WHO declared it as a potential pandemic. Unfortunately, the health crisis and the terrifying death toll in China and other affected places in different continents was not met by an appropriate response from the Indonesian authorities. One can easily recall some of the dark jokes about the virus being made by high rank officials of Indonesia at the time. As Indonesian citizens we obviously regretted this insensitive attitude that indicated an underestimation of the urgent situation. Only a little while later, early March, the first Corona positive cases were identified in Jakarta. Soon after this, the Indonesian government started to take measurements. Unlike the neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia, that took the situation seriously by declaring a state of emergency, the Indonesian government showed a half-hearted response. As a result the virus could spread quickly to the different regions and islands of the country. Within two months after the first case, Indonesia had become one of the pandemic epicentres in Southeast Asia.
In response to this, the government was forced to take stricter measures, the so called Pembatasan Sosial berskala Besar (PSBB) or Large Scale Social Distancing. The government claimed that this was the most appropriate strategy for the Indonesian context, as a total lockdown would cause social chaos, like in India. Under these measures, all public institutions, including schools, universities, malls and religious venues were closed, and a work from home policy was enforced nationwide. Exceptions were made for several strategic sectors in order to prevent economic downfall and social disorder. This ‘partial lockdown’ created much confusion, uncertainty and discontent, especially among Muslims who were about to welcome Ramadhan.
At the end of March, Covid-19 really started to affect Indonesian society. Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM), that lost one of its professors because of this pandemic, was among the first campuses in Yogyakarta that took decisive measures. The campus authority declared a work from home policy, while cancelling all academic events, and shifting all learning processes from regular class meetings into an online platform. These measures had a tremendous effect on everyone working on campus, including on us and our work on this research project.
During these first weeks we learned to adjust to this unprecedented situation, often via trial and error. Before the Covid-19 period, we – being respectively a PhD researcher and a faculty staff-member – spent most of our working hours on campus. In between our working hours, we loved to attend discussion meetings (at lunch or coffee time) held at the history department. It were these events that enabled us to socialize and share our research with colleagues. In the evening we often did outdoor exercises on campus.
When Covid-19 hit our campus-life, we were in the middle of organising a joint Regional Studies workshop for the end of March with the researchers from the Netherlands. The preparations were going fine, both on the content and on a social level. However, the worsening situation in the Netherlands and the growing uncertainty in Indonesia made us put the plans on hold. Consequently, all preparations related to the workshop had to be reversed or cancelled.
Altogether our routine in daily life changed remarkably due to the Corona-pandemic. At first we felt insecure and disorientated. Accepting all restrictions in day to day life and isolating ourselves from all kinds of social gathering was like a new reality, that had been unimaginable only a few weeks before. As we recall it, the first three weeks after the implementation of the semi lockdown were the hardest. It was a period during which most of us tried to digest the new situation. What was going on? How bad would it turn out to be? What were we supposed to do with our job? In that sense, many of us felt the same.
After these first chaotic weeks - still being in an adjustment modus - it was encouraging to find friends and colleagues starting to reconnect by various means of communication. We more and more managed to reshuffle our daily life, drawing up working-at-home schedules. After a while we started to feel much more settled. We started to reach out to our colleagues in the Regional Studies project, first with fellow Indonesian researchers and then with our Dutch colleagues. Our initial objective was quite simple: we wanted to make sure that everyone was well and safe and reconnect them to the project. Then we tried to catch up with them to see how their work was going and to discuss how we should proceed.
We organized several online meetings. We met online via Zoom and later Whereby, which was quite successful. In that way we managed to hold a series of Regional Studies ‘workshops’.
Since online-workshops were a new experience and even an experiment for all of us, we did not want to push it too hard, especially when the technology/internet connections started acting up. It was important that all researchers were able to share their problems and challenges that had arisen as a result of the pandemic. Frankly speaking, at first it was a little strange to have virtual interaction for the purpose of work, while being at home in our private space. But at the same time, it was also an interesting experience and to many of us it gave a sense of relieve to have work-related interaction again. In this context, we would like to applaud all our colleagues and researchers in this project for their resilience, working spirit and gotong royong.
The current circumstances in Indonesia, the way we think and experience, cause many challenges for academia. On the one hand, certain activities are still possible via digital tools, but on the other hand there are activities that require direct personal contact. From our virtual Regional Studies workshop of the past weeks we learned that several members of our group can’t do research on location because of the ban on (inter)national travel. On top of that there are problems with getting access to local archives and other sources of information. Such a situation, understandably, could cause frustration and delay in writing. Meanwhile, in Indonesia, the government has introduced the paradigm of ‘Normal Baru’ (New Normal). But for us it is not clear what this new normality in academia will look like. Is it just a set of new ‘technocratic’ values or also a new intellectual paradigm with more academic freedom that eventually might lead to new understanding of this Nation’s past? We will see.
For Ireen Hoogenboom and Martijn Eickhoff, based in the Netherland, the experiences with the impact of the Corona-virus are quite similar. The virus started spreading earlier in the Netherlands than in Indonesia. In February we started to doubt whether the annual workshop at the end of March in Yogyakarta could still go on. After some thorough deliberations with our joint Indonesian-Dutch team we decided to cancel it, ‘just to be on the safe side’. A week later the so called ‘intelligent lockdown’ was a fact. Only then we started to realize that the virus was there to stay, at least for a considerable time, and would profoundly affect our life and work.
Making a planning became increasingly difficult. In the context of the Regional Studies project it was in particular the ban on international traveling and physical gatherings that posed a challenge. Although some of us were personally affected by the virus, and experienced serious setbacks on a personal and academic level, we learned to make the best of it in the new situation. Catching-up with the colleagues of the UGM and the Indonesian researchers of the Regional Studies group was a great experience and gave us new energy. Together we organised a series of online meetings and workshop sessions trying to meet the goals of the cancelled workshop. Despite some technical problems now and then we managed quite well due to the commitment of all the researchers involved.
Now being used to it, digital workshops have indeed become a kind of ‘Normal Baru’. However, we miss out on the personal contact and the room for spontaneous discussions. Hopefully in the near future we can combine both forms of meeting. After all, it cannot be denied that the online exchange worked so well, because we could build on ‘physical’ meetings in the past.