The Life of the Bajo People amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

Benny Baskara
Department of Anthropology, Halu Oleo University

The Life of the Bajo People amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

Indonesia was firstly alerted to the COVID-19 pandemic after it had already entered this country, when the first case of infection was confirmed in Depok, West Java, on 2 March, 2020 (Nuraini 2020). Since this first confirmation three and half months ago, the outbreak rapidly, and to date more than 43,000 are positively infected, with more than 2300 fatal cases in Indonesia (GTCN 2020). This number places Indonesia amongst the highest of positively COVID-19 infected cases among other Southeast Asian countries (Chua 2020).

As with other countries around the world, during this global pandemic, the Indonesian government issued strategic policies to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the country. Although the Indonesian government did not apply a complete lockdown, it did enforce a policy that resembled one known as Large Scale Social Restriction (Pembatasan Sosial Berskala Besar PSBB). This was applied in some areas of Indonesia, such as Jakarta and its surrounding areas from 10 April, 2020 (Rika 2020), as well as others that have been considerably affected. Some of the rules of the social restriction policy request that people stay at home and not go outside except for very urgent reasons, to avoid crowds and mass gatherings, and to follow healthy habits, such as washing hands using water and soap frequently, using a face mask when venturing outside as well as recommendations regarding sunbathing every morning (Wicaksono 2020).  

However, the applied social restriction policy has affected social and economic life across all of Indonesia’s diverse communities, including the Bajo people. As an anthropologist, I have worked with the Bajo people who live around Kendari, the capital city of Southeast Sulawesi province, Indonesia. My field site is Mekar Bajo village, located about 25kms northeast of Kendari (see map below). Mekar Bajo is relatively small (5.48 km2) and has a population of around 2400 (BPS Konawe 2018). Around 85% of them are traditional fisherman (Fua 2020). In this article, I focus on describing the life of the Bajo people amidst this pandemic to show how their socio-economic lives have been affected by the implemented policy. I also discuss their response to the social restriction policy, and how they respond. For this purpose, I have interviewed two key informants, Parman and Sadar, who are prominent Bajo in the village.

Map of Mekar Bajo Village near Kendari, Indonesia (Source: Google Map, with modification, May 2020)


Despite the ineffectiveness of the social restriction policy to reduce the spread and impact of COVID-19 and the inconsistency of its application through the government’s own apparatuses, different communities in Indonesian society have responded in multiple ways. These responses cannot be separated from the present situation as experienced by these communities, in other words, the diverse ethnic groups and their cultural and religious beliefs that support them. However, in general, we might say that in Indonesia there have been two major responses: following or obeying rules and disobeying the social restriction policy.


The Impact of the Social Restriction Policy

Before discussing the response of the Bajo people toward the social restriction policy there is a need to ask how policy has impacted their daily lives. The Bajo feel that the biggest impact is on their economy. Due to the implementation of the social restriction policy there has been a marked drop in economic activity, where transactions in the market have significantly decreased (Buhari 2020). At present, most Bajo, as fishermen, depend on marine resources, yet as a result of the current social restriction policy their catches have not been bought by buyers. As most buyers are from Kendari, when restrictions were implemented by the local city government, they were unable to purchase catches regularly from Bajo fishermen. And as a result of this, Bajo fishermen have seen a decline in income resulting in difficulties for them to purchase everyday goods.

April to May is the season for catching octopus and this is the general catch many fishermen sell on the market. However, now a fisheries company, Jayanti, based in Kendari and a regular buyer of octopus from fishermen, has closed and ceased operations due to the current restrictions. Octopus catches remain abundant, but the product cannot be sold to the market due to the current situation. This has created a substantial gap between supply and demand with oversupply on one side and no demand on the other, resulting in a drastic price drop. This essentially means octopus is presently a worthless commodity and led to a loss in income. Although conditions under the application of the restriction policy are tough and difficult, fortunately, it has not yet reached a critical point in threatening food safety. Catches still allow the Bajo to fulfill their daily livelihood needs in terms of food security, by trading their catches for basic food supplies.

In response to this, Bajo fishermen have switched from fresh to dried food produce. Those who reside in Mekar village (located on the outskirts of Kendari), with fishing as their main source of income, earn extra from renting their boats and providing transportation services to Bokori Island, a nearby tourist destination. However, Bokori Island has also been closed to tourists, to avoid crowding and mass gatherings and prevent further transmission of the coronavirus. Due to travel restrictions to the island during the pandemic, the Bajo have also lost extra income from boat rentals and transportation services (see map above). Fortunately, aid from the government and other parties in the form of basic food supplies, such as rice, sugar, instant noodles, palm oil, and milk, may alleviate their burden (Fua 2020; Harianto 2020; Onno 2020).

The government, via military personnel, distributed aid in the form of basic food supplies (rice, sugar, instant noodles, palm oil, and milk) to the Bajo. Source:, 2020


The Bajo’s Responses to the Policy

What is worth noting here is that the response of the Bajo toward the policy seems to indicate a form of disobedience. For example, in the village I research in, they have not followed some elements of the restriction policy to stay at home and not go outside. These elements are often known as “lockdown” as they compel people to stay at home.  Disobedience has come to be called the “look down,” therefore when the Bajo do not follow the rule, it can be said that they are “looking down on the lockdown.”

Another example of disobedience is leaving home to go fishing. A reason put forward for this is that it is impossible to stay at home all time: how can they obtain earnings for food supplies?  Even when they have already caught fish, the amount is only enough for daily sustenance due to a lack of buyers. The Bajo also travel outside to visit their relatives who reside in other villages. This is something easy to do as they travel by boat and there is no need for them to travel on land and pass through city borders. As such, the prohibition on travelling inside and outside the city or across city borders has little meaning for most people. 

Under the restriction policy, people are also prohibited to participate in mass gatherings, and are required to maintain a safe distance from each other. These rules appear difficult to be applied to Bajo society. The distance between houses in Bajo villages is very close: some houses cling to each other and their sizes are relatively small. The condition of households in the community are dissimilar to those of households in urban communities which are usually made up of 5-7 people per house. Yet population density in Bajo communities is very high, and up to 30 people may reside in a single house. Due to this, the prohibition rule on gatherings and maintaining safe distance is very difficult to implement. Bajo also usually visit neighbors and are very involved in conversations which makes the rule to avoid gatherings even more difficult to abide by.

Situation of daily activities in a Bajo village. Source: Author


To enforce the application of the restriction policy, the government has mobilized public health officers, the police, and armed forces, to make routine patrols and surveillance of surrounding community residences, including surrounding Bajo villages. When patrols pass by a village, and discover people who are participating in gatherings and without maintaining safe distance, they disperse them. However, as soon as they are gone, people come back to gather again. Meanwhile, parts of the restriction policy are a prohibition against organizing or holding events, festivals, or rituals that involve many people. So far people have abided by the rule and cancelled or postponed plans to hold events that invite many people and potentially lead to mass gatherings.

Besides implementing a restriction policy, in anticipation of the spread of coronavirus, the Indonesian government also released recommendations for people to carry out what is known as as “Clean and Healthy Lifestyle” (Perilaku Hidup Bersih dan Sehat PHBS). Recommendations include washing hands with soap frequently, using face masks when going outside or meeting other people, and eating well, especially vegetables and fruits (to increase and maintain body immunity). However, as with the social restriction policy, the Bajo have not followed these due to the conditions of the environment that the Bajo live within.

In particular, washing hands frequently with soap does not conform with their daily habits and beliefs. As a seafaring people who live on and off the sea, the Bajo hold the belief that seawater may clean everything, including the causes of diseases such as virus and bacteria. As such, they also believe that the coronavirus can be cleansed by bathing in the sea. As one response to this recommendation, Bajo are unwilling to wash their hands frequently, but bathe in the sea instead. They argue that seawater may clean and dissolve the virus more effectively than soap and water and that all parts of the body will be cleansed. Furthermore, they say that to wash hands with soap requires freshwater, because soap will not work with seawater. At present, it is difficult for them to obtain freshwater rather than seawater which is abundant.

Another aspect of the recommendation is to sunbathe every morning for at least one hour between 9~10 am. The Bajo deride this as they spend more than enough time then is required outdoors and are exposed to direct sunlight for most of the day. They also ignore the recommendation to wear face masks when going outside due to not feeling comfortable with them during everyday activities. They also ignore the call to eat healthily because they feel this to be difficult and burdensome for them to consume vegetables and fruits. Even before the outbreak they very rarely consumed fruits and vegetables in their daily diet as these are more difficult to obtain compared to fish and seafood. Yet the most important reason is that they feel that fruits and vegetables are food for land based people, and as seafarers, their food comes from the sea.


The Bajo’s View on the Pandemic

The Bajo consider that this pandemic is something that originated from outside. As a seafaring people they have rationalized that it is something that originates from land, and hope that the pandemic will not reach and strike them. To date, no Bajo have been found to be positively infected by COVID-19, and this has strengthened their hope that this pandemic may pass them by. However, some who have already been in contact with land people believe that it is a kind of warning from God to all people including the Bajo. They have said that this pandemic is a kind of warning, especially for the Bajo, that they should live healthier lives and abandon unhealthy behavior. Meanwhile, some have seen the pandemic to be a “blessing in disguise” as the sea is quieter and cleaner than before. Seaways are less busy and pollution has been reduced. They also hope that after the pandemic ends, there will emerge a new consciousness among people to love the sea more.


26 June, 2020





Benny Baskara is currently working as a lecturer at the Department of Anthropology, Halu Oleo University, Kendari, Indonesia. His research interests are mainly on studying the dynamics of maritime society, particularly the Bajo people. He was a former CSEAS fellow in 2019.   



Benny Baskara. 2020. “The Life of the Bajo People amidst COVID-19 Pandemic” CSEAS NEWSLETTER, 78: TBC.