Handling the Outbreak among the Indigenous People of Dayak Benawan

Nikodemus Niko

Handling the Outbreak among the Indigenous People of Dayak Benawan

Since March 2020, the Indonesian National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) has categorized the COVID-19 outbreak as a national disaster. To date, however, the authorities have issued no specific guidelines for indigenous peoples. Health-related guidelines based on cultural approaches thus do not exist and this is putting indigenous communities at risk.

The indigenous people of Balai District, Sanggau Regency West Kalimantan, are at risk from exposure to the Coronavirus. This is especially true for older individuals in the Dayak community, where I live. Our community has not been urged to be vigilant; on the contrary, the Ministry of Health have asked people not to panic and to keep calm during this emergency. There is not even any obligation to practice social distancing. Left to prepare autonomously, we have bene spraying liquid disinfectants outside every house, wearing masks, washing our hands with soap, and paying attention to the advice from national and local authorities.


Difficulties in Finding Reliable Information

A Dayak woman at home. Source: Author

People from the Dayak Benawan tribe live mostly in villages in Balai District and our tribe is one of the Dayak sub-tribes in Kalimantan. More than 1,000 Dayak Benawan live in Balai District, mostly in Cowet Village.

Local health personnel have provided no information about the outbreak. Education varies a lot in our community, where many people have only completed primary school or did not go to school at all. As a result, not everyone has access to reliable information. We also have no internet nor electricity. In all honesty, we barely survive. The local government and national authorities merely recommend that people stay at home, but our society cannot afford to self-quarantine.

As one way of responding to this crisis, people here have been carrying out the Nyapet ritual, designed to ward off diseases from the village. This is a traditional ritual requiring that everyone stays at home for three days and three nights. Having never been tested as a long-term preventive measure, however, the ritual has no scientific credibility and is only based on our belief that the universe will protect the community from harm.



To date, the central, regional and village governments have not appointed anybody to manage the outbreak in our village. Nobody has disseminated legitimate information about the nature of the virus, nor have they challenged the many myths and rumors.

Public health centers recommend that we send them a text message if we have a fever, but this is difficult, given that the phone signal is bad and not everyone has a cellphone. No health worker themselves will enter the village because of the outbreak. Our subdistrict recently confirmed one positive case, sparking great fears. Not knowing what to do, we are even more confused and frightened.


Indonesian Government Response to COVID-19

The Government of Indonesia has provided aid and incentives to the rural and urban poor affected by the pandemic. In our community, poor people who are not registered with the government social security program have received 10 kilograms of rice as assistance, while participants of the Program Keluarga Harapan (Family Hope Program) have received other necessary food assistance. Unfortunately, however, not everyone is eligible as many poor people in our community are not registered as beneficiaries. The government has stated that every family affected by COVID-19 will receive Rp.600,000 for a period of three months. In reality, the sparse population in our community does not accept cash assistance. Due to problems in communication between both the central and regional governments, aid is not distributed evenly among the people.


Strong Solidarity

People carrying out the ritual. Source: Author

At the moment, people in our community engage in farming and agriculture as usual. Restrictions on social contact between communities has not affected activities in the fields and gardens. The Dayak Benawan people continue with their work routine simply because they have no choice: they keep working to survive. Locking themselves up at home without food is not an option. Solidarity between our community and other Dayak sub-tribes remains strong.

We wish that the government would take a more active role in collaborating with local communities by means of providing information, for example via drawings and stickers written in the Dayak Benawan language, explaining clearly what Coronavirus is and how we can prevent it. We also need the government to form a COVID-19 response team for the Benawan Dayak tribe, and to improve a program of social assistance that enables all individuals to receive equal aid. On our part, we are eager to help do our part to end the spread of COVID-19 in Indonesia.


11 May, 2020



Nikodemus Niko is a Ph.D. Student at the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Padjadjaran in Indonesia. He specializes in gender, human rights and LGBT studies, with a research project on women and poverty among the Dayak Benawan people. He is the author of Boy Prostitute: Kemiskinan dan Life Style (2016) and Perempuan Dayak Benawan: Kedudukan pada Struktur Domestik dan Publik (2018).



Nikodemus Niko. 2020. “Handling the Outbreak among the Indigenous People of Dayak Benawan” CSEAS NEWSLETTER, 78: TBC.