Neighborhood Lockdown as the New Normal? Jakarta’s COVID-19 Experience

Genta Kuno
PhD Candidate Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies (ASAFAS)

Neighborhood Lockdown as the New Normal? Jakarta’s COVID-19 Experience

On 7 May 2020, President Joko Widodo (hereafter Jokowi) stated that people must make peace with COVID-19, while justifying the country’s choice of not imposing lockdown (Tempo 2020). Jokowi’s call for a paradigm shift from war on the pandemic to a position of peace, also implicitly tried to ease public distrust toward the state in handling COVID-19 which from the beginning tended to prioritize the economy over public health. Retrospectively, such attitude can be disclosed from the various actions taken so far, including claims about the country’s immunity in the beginning of pandemic (February), and the lack of both tests and transparency that continues until now (The Jakarta Post 2020).

But, it was in late March 2020 that the state started to expose its attitude to the public through declining the imposition of a lockdown, one of intensely debated COVID-19 policy options at the time. Interestingly, it has not only become a moment of public distrust, but also that of a grassroots reaction toward the pandemic, where “neighborhood lockdowns” emerged across the archipelago. As will be explained, while the institutional decision-making on a lockdown reached a stalemate, neighborhoods in many areas, started to restrict access into settlements as part of the lockdown implementation. In doing so, they used existing gates on their alleys which have become a common feature of settlements primarily in urban areas along with the popularization of gated communities. Moreover, these alley-gates have been adopted by neither developers nor public housing authorities, but by neighborhood associations who were the enforcers of neighborhood lockdowns as well. They are the residential self-governance units that also serve as the smallest two-level administrative divisions in Indonesia (called Rukun Tetangga and Rukun Warga, or RT/RW. RT is the lower unit that unites several households, and RW is the upper unit of neighborhood associations consisting of several RTs).

I first learned of this phenomenon from news on the TV. Some neighborhood associations in rural Yogyakarta were reportedly conducting a lockdown with self-made gates and banners. I remembered that a few days later, gates were used to prohibit entry to an alley in front of my house in Jakarta, the capital city which is also considered the epicenter of COVID-19 in Indonesia. In Jakarta, the first official case of infection was confirmed on 2 March that allegedly occurred at a dance party in a bar in South Jakarta through an infected Japanese woman (The Jakarta Post 2020). According to Official COVID-19 data, by April, Jakarta’s positive cases soon passed 1000 and the daily increase peaked on 16 April at 223. As of 11 May, the data reported 14,265 positive cases in Indonesia whereas 5,195 of them were Jakarta’s cases. The phenomenon of neighborhood lockdowns started to proliferate in the city as the virus and social anxiety spread. At the time of this writing (11 May, 2020), neighborhood lockdowns had seemingly become a normal part of city life.


Experiencing Neighborhood Lockdown in Jakarta

28 March was an important moment for neighborhood lockdowns in Jakarta. Official data recorded 603 cases in Jakarta, almost half of the 1,155 positive cases in Indonesia. Thus, social distancing alone was considered ineffective, even though it was implemented on 20 March, when the city’s state of emergency was declared prior to the national one. On that day, Governor Anies Baswedan (hereafter, Anies), proposed that Jakarta be put on lockdown as a key measure against the pandemic by requesting the central government’s permission to implement the regional quarantine, a term equivalence to lockdown elaborated in Health Quarantine Law (Law No.6/2018). But, it was immediately rejected by Jokowi, preventing both the economic burden of lockdown as well as the rise of Anies’s popularity.

A day after the proposal, a neighborhood in Cikini, Central Jakarta, started a neighborhood lockdown carried out by RW. They closed all entry points in the neighborhood for the whole day except the main entrance, using the already erected gates that used to be closed only during nighttime. At the main entrance, gatekeepers organized by neighborhood associations were positioned, charged with monitoring virtually every person who comes and leaves and to refuse entry to nonresidents.

I met a friend living in the area that day (29 March). As I was arriving, I noticed something different about this densely populated, lower-class neighborhood (Kampung) hidden behind the busy main street. Around the main entrance, I saw some motorcycles and pedestrians in a disorganized queue waiting for an inspection. People with whom the gatekeeper was not familiar with were stranded and asked for their identity and reasons for entering. It seems that those with acquaintances in the residence were allowed to enter, as I was, but outsiders were not. For example, drivers of ride-hailing apps who delivered food or were picking up passengers were instructed to wait for customers in front of the gate.

On 2 April, gate inspections were further enforced. For those allowed to enter, including community members, the residents in charge took their body temperature, provided them with a hand wash, and cleaned their vehicles with disinfectant liquid before letting them through the gate without any exceptions. The officers from the ward, police and military were also expected to follow the same procedure before entering the neighborhood. Gate inspection shifts were divided among existing resident groups under neighborhood associations. Youth and women groups took the daytime shift while men from each RT and paid local guards took the nighttime shift.

Gate Inspection in a neighborhood in Cikini. Photo source: Auhor, April 2, 2020


On the other hand, not all neighborhoods in Jakarta implemented lockdowns, and not all neighborhoods on lockdown have had strict access controls (The Jakarta Post 2020). The neighborhood where I lived —North Utankayu in East Jakarta—did not put that much effort into COVID-19-related policies except for closing the gates earlier than usual at 10:00 p.m. As far as I observed, such a situation persisted even after Anies’s lockdown proposal.

But, the situation in this neighborhood, which had seemed insensitive to the raging pandemic, suddenly changed. On the night of 5 April, an urgent RT-level meeting was called and attended by household representatives, which meant that the virus had become a real community problem. At the meeting, information was shared regarding a person from a neighboring ward who died of COVID-19, but the infection was confirmed only after death. This information also reached me through a WhatsApp family group. This meant that the neighborhood was no longer an ordinary RT but rather one of the city’s surviving “green zones, which must fight the invasion of COVID-19-infected “red zones”.1 The following day, using randomly collected timber, a new, larger gate was constructed, and one of existing gates on the same alley was modified with fencelike features. The former was temporarily set as the only doorway available all day in which an interested resident may ask the neighborhood association for a duplicate key. In the afternoon, right after construction, people from the neighborhood association also cleaned the surface of houses with disinfectant liquid.

However, unlike the neighborhood in Cikini, my neighborhood did not conduct gate inspections, and ordinary residents were mobilized only at the last minute as of this writing. The monitoring of potentially infected outsiders was assigned to the local guards as an extended task. Local guards are residents paid by the neighborhood association to be stationed at a guardhouse at night on normal days, but since antivirus gates were erected, their operation extended to cover 24 hours. However, their antivirus operations were not so different from their usual operations, as they carried out neither the temperature check nor the sterilization of the vehicle. They only watch the gates from the guardhouse located at the relatively closest point to all gates (4 including the new one) and leave the guardhouse only if they find someone not from the neighborhood approaching the gate, to tell him/her not to enter.


What Makes a Fast Grassroot Response Possible?

As many more neighborhoods in the city implemented lockdowns, the media started to address what drives this phenomenon to emerge so sporadically and quickly. The answers tended to fall into two categories: innovation and protest. First, neighborhood lockdowns were considered an innovative swift response by urban communities to a pandemic. Second, they were interpreted as a form of public protest against the state that decided not to apply lockdowns so that responses occurred, spontaneously, in various places. However, these two answers only touch the surface of the neighborhood lockdowns as they are part of a larger phenomenon.

To begin with, Yusri Yunus, the head of public relations at Jakarta Metropolitan Police, told the media that the closing of “alley-gates (Portal)” rampantly conducted by neighborhoods was just an “innovation by residents” (Tempo 2020). However, neighborhoods with alley-gates in Jakarta and other urban areas are neither new nor innovations. In Jakarta, various neighborhoods not determined by class or density (kampung or private estate) have constructed these gates mainly for, but not limited to security. In fact, the arbitrary construction of these gates has been prohibited by regional laws on public order at least since the 1980s (Jakarta Regional Law No. 11/1988). In the two abovementioned examples, neighborhoods could create a lockdown condition right after receiving information on infection cases in nearby places, because they deployed existing gates that usually closed at night. Therefore, a fast response in in the form of neighborhood lockdown could happen in the city, precisely not because of innovation. In this sense, perhaps the innovation here is the government’s appropriation of the neighborhood lockdown, which is altering its attitude toward alley-gates in normal circumstances.

Government appropriated neighborhood lockdowns not merely by tolerating the alley-gates. Although Jakarta’s governor had no explicit instructions to promote neighborhood lockdowns, local bureaucrats were inclined to support them in their respective jurisdictions. The mayor of East Jakarta reported that 198 neighborhood associations (RT) in 40 wards had already implemented lockdowns or regional quarantines (Tribunnews 2020). Several neighborhoods (both RW and RT) in Cililitan, East Jakarta, provide a clearer example. In those neighborhoods, access control of the alleys, which started in April, were not initiated by any community member or leader; it turned out that they decided to follow the instructions of the head of the ward of Cililitan. The instruction letter, which I found pinned to the wall next to a gate, did not explicitly mention “lockdown,” “gate,” or “quarantine” but did deliver specific terms such as “one-access system.” The most unexpected words in the letter were the opening remarks, which highlighted that this instruction resulted from a videoconference meeting between the governor and all mayors in the city. However, this is not to say that the pro-lockdown local government secretly disregarded the anti-lockdown central government. This is because the central government had also anticipated neighborhood lockdowns since the beginning of phenomenon and the rejection of Anies’s proposal. For instance, Fadjoel Rachman, the president’s spokesperson, said that while Jakarta’s quarantine was declined, neighborhood-based quarantines can still be done independently (CNBC Indonesia 2020). The overtones of protest (Tirto 2020), if any, immediately faded as the state as a whole, carefully redefined and utilized the practice of neighborhood lockdowns in a way that would be consistent with its bigger gesture. Thus, while national and regional lockdowns were discarded, neighborhood lockdowns were confirmed by the state that has been trying to find a convenient position between economy and public health.


How are Neighborhoods Making Sense of the Lockdown?

On the other hand, anti-pandemic policies that limit people’s activities (social distancing or lockdown) must be made with justification for their effectiveness, otherwise the enforcement would be unacceptable and insufficient. Some social resilience experts have studied the potential of community-based policy and proposed “micro-lockdown”, which the neighborhood lockdown could be the prototype of (Amir and Tantri 2020). However, neighborhoods in Jakarta adopted the practice regardless of the actual effect in reducing infection. This reveals that although the government utilized the neighborhood lockdown, the neighborhood associations and the residents were justifying the practice in ways that went against the government’s expectations.  

Back to the neighborhood in Cikini, because of the enforced gate inspection, the crowds in front of the main entrance grew during the day. The friend I visited said that one of the residents complained that “they (the people in charge of gate inspections) instructed us not to gather, but they are also making crowds.” Notwithstanding some disagreements, the lockdown was decided based on the will of the majority of the residents after receiving news that the nearby neighborhood had an infected person, according to the head of neighborhood association there. Furthermore, as another source of disagreements, lockdown operation cost a lot of money, putting a burden on the community. For instance, he said the operation costs at least 400,000 rupiahs per day (approximately $27), which is paid for by RW finances sourced from monthly community contributions as well as some private donations.

Local government has also defined several unnecessary efforts which includes the practice of sterilizing vehicles with disinfectant liquid, a common feature of the neighborhood lockdown (gating was not). However, this practice did not immediately disappear perhaps because the announcement was written in the official guidelines for the formation of the COVID-19 neighborhood (RW) task force, which were published on 10 April and distributed to each unit. This COVID-19 RW task force has been widely conceived as a “program-recipient unit” that neighborhood heads would merely arrange as an administrative formality to the wards. The head of the RW in Cikini also made an RW task force which was far from the idea of the task force as a special unit of residents under the command of the local ward. For instance, the membership was indistinguishable from that of the RW original working unit. Not surprisingly, the vehicle sterilization also continued as the task force’s guidelines were not stickily followed. A surprising change after the formation of the task force was an upgrade of sterilization equipment in which they replaced a self-made spray with a disinfectant liquid tank, which seems expensive, like with the ones used in medical facilities.

The neighborhood in Cikini revealed that it was more important for them to maintain their efforts rather than to eliminate the unnecessary ones in accordance with the guidelines which could also have lessened the cost of neighborhood lockdown As such, the neighborhood lockdown was not justified based on the effectiveness of measurements, but rather the visibility of neighborhood against the threatened (residents) and the threats (the virus itself and outsiders as potentially infected people).


Urban Neighborhoods in Change

Jokowi rejected Anise’s request for a lockdown and kept Jakarta open by only implementing the so-called “large-scale social distancing (Pembatasan Sosial Berskala Besar, PSBB)” from 10 April until 4 June (initially until 23 April). Concurrently, many neighborhoods in Jakarta closed their spaces with “lockdowns” in aggressive lettering on some banners as well as with merciless access control even to officers in many places. It can be understood that the city could quickly and widely adopt neighborhood lockdowns because of the established familiarity of gates as a tool for controlling access into residential areas, as well as irregular official approvals in some cases. Furthermore, many neighborhood lockdown features diverge from the everyday life of neighborhoods. It is also important to note that the contrast between the open city and closed neighborhoods is a segment of the cityscape that ordinary Jakartans usually witness every night. Therefore, although the spread of COVID-19 is transforming the way we live in the city, as far as neighborhood lockdowns are concerned, such changes might not be radical.

This new normal is not as new as the virus. Looking ahead, neighborhoods may have more reasons than virus itself to keep their gates closed. Concerns on the pandemic’s impact grow stronger as 3.7 million Indonesian are now unemployed due to the pandemic (Tempo 2020) and the government assistance to the poor is hampered due to inadequate data. Entering May, the head of RW in Cikini was frustrated with the handling the panic over funeral method of a resident that died allegedly due to the virus. My neighborhood which is no longer a green zone, start doing resident-led night watch after finding out a car theft on a resident’s CCTV. If these concerns were to result in some social unrest, for instance, many closed neighborhoods will not probably open their anti-virus gates even after the government relaxes some of key measures against COVID-19. Nevertheless, the results of neighborhood lockdowns will determine how Jakarta makes peace with the pandemic.


1 June, 2020





  • 1 Green Zone and Red Zone are the local government’s label for COVID-19-free or infected administrative territories (such as province and ward). These labels do not apply to RT/RW, as the infection data at the RT/RW level has not been publicized.

Genta Kuno is a PhD Candidate Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies (ASAFAS). He has been working on the theme of politics of public space and neighborhoods in Jakarta. He wrote a masters thesis investigating the practice of neighborhood gating in Jakarta.



Genta Kuno. 2020. “Neighborhood Lockdown as the New Normal? Jakarta’s COVID-19 Experience” CSEAS NEWSLETTER, 78: TBC.