JAKARTA: With the majority of their occupants studying remotely from home, the neighbourhoods near one of Indonesia’s most prestigious universities appeared quiet and desolate.
Outside the gates of University of Indonesia – a vast, 320ha campus located just south of the Indonesian capital Jakarta – dormitories and houses for rent have been mostly vacant since the university decided to cancel all in-person classes in March following the COVID-19 outbreak.
“This place has been vacant for months,” Ahmad Fathony, a keeper at an all-male dormitory in Kukusan area, told CNA. “I only come here twice a day, in the morning to turn off the lights and in the afternoon to turn the lights back on.”
Before the pandemic, the sub-district of Kukusan in the Jakarta suburb of Depok was buzzing with students who frequented its many restaurants, shops, mini marts and cafes.
Thousands, mainly students from the university’s engineering and economics faculties nearby, lived in hundreds of dormitories, rented rooms and houses which occupy almost every corner of Kukusan down to its labyrinthine alleyways.
That number had dwindled to just a few hundred, locals and students estimated.
“In my dormitory, out of the 29 rooms available, only three are occupied,” Faundra Ikhsan, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student told CNA.
Ikhsan’s dormitory, known locally as “kost”, sits right at the edge of the University of Indonesia campus. The further the dormitories are from the university gates, the lower the occupancy rate.
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Many dormitories have shuttered doors and padlocked fences with tall unkempt grasses and shrubs on their front lawns, an indication that not a soul was inside. Cafes and laundromats have also closed with little signs of reopening.
While shops and restaurants still opened during the day to cater to university staffers, security guards and students, all economic activities ceased after dark. This is despite the fact that a new semester has begun, after a break in July and August.
“It can get really quiet at night. After 8pm no one is outside and Kukusan resembles a ghost town,” 22-year-old Ikhsan said.
“Do you know when the campus will reopen?”
Mulyadi, who runs a tiny restaurant and a stall at the engineering faculty’s cafeteria, asked the same question every time a student or campus security guard dropped by for a meal.
It is a question which has been lingering in his mind for months, but no one has an answer.
The 47-year-old, who like many Indonesians goes with one name, had closed down his business earlier when the university decided to cease all in-person classes indefinitely. He laid off two of his workers and went back to his village in West Sumatra province.
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“There was nothing to do back in my village. After a few months, I decided to return even though I knew the students were gone,” he said.
He returned to Kukusan in July and to his surprise there were still students from outside Jakarta who decided to stay put because of better Internet access. There were also staffers who work every other day on campus. The campus cafeteria is still closed.
“My daily income has dwindled. I used to make 2 million rupiah ($142) a day. Now I make 400,000 rupiah a day. After rent and other expenses, I barely break even,” Mulyadi said.
Other businesses in Kukusan are also suffering.
Nina Rahman, 55, said her 15-room dormitory has been a money pit since the pandemic began and she is considering selling the property.
“I have tried slashing down the rental but no one is interested. My dormitory is a bit secluded and it is an old building. I cannot compete with newer and fancier dormitories who sit right in front of the (campus) gates,” she told CNA.
“The cost to maintain the place, the bills, the property tax, it’s just too much for a widow like me. I hope the campus reopens or someone would just take the property off my hands. Whichever happens sooner.”
The Ministry of Education has said that only schools and universities located in the green and yellow zones are allowed to reopen. A green zone is an area with zero new cases in a 14-day period while a yellow zone is an area with only a handful of imported cases and no local transmission.
The city of Depok, where the university is located, is considered a red zone with a high number of local transmissions.
SOME FIND REMOTE LEARNING CHALLENGING
The University of Indonesia campus grounds felt even more deserted than Kukusan. Aside from a few security guards and janitors roaming around as well as a handful of students who needed to use the laboratories, there was hardly anyone else there.
“Before (the pandemic), it's only ever gotten this quiet during school breaks,” Ova Candra Dewi, an architecture lecturer told CNA.
Her department used to be filled with students staying until late – sometimes overnight – building architecture models, making technical drawings and getting ready for their presentations.
That all changed in mid-March when the university announced that it was ceasing all in-person classes to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The announcement, Dewi said, was made on a Friday on Mar 13 and was effective next Monday.
“We only had one weekend to devise ways to conduct classes, how students should submit assignments and do consultation for their thesis and final presentation. We scrambled to get the system ready,” she said.
“No matter how much preparation we did, there were always glitches and unforeseen issues. It was a struggle for both students and lecturers. It took time to get used to the system in place today.”
But studying remotely is not for everyone.
“Online learning is for those privileged enough to have a steady Internet access,” 19-year-old geophysics student Syauqi Muhammad told CNA.
When the university decided to put in-person classes on hold, Muhammad returned to his parent’s home, a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride away from the University of Indonesia. But the Internet connection in his small town is patchy at best.
“That’s why this semester I decided to live near campus again. I can get a steady Internet connection here. I can also go to the campus to get free Wi-Fi,” he said.
But even with good Internet connection, remote learning is not completely effective.
“On one hand we are happy that learning becomes more flexible. But on the other hand, some subjects require us to do lab work. If lab work is performed by others on a live stream, how are we able to understand?” industrial engineering student Ananda Pasha told CNA.
Although Pasha’s house is just a short train ride away from University of Indonesia, the 22-year-old said that he has only been to campus twice to do some lab work during the pandemic.
“I miss going to campus, but none of my friends are there so I see no reason why I should go there more often.”
A QUIET PLACE
Mechanical engineering student Ikhsan said he chose to stay in Kukusan because he needs to spend a lot of time in the lab for his thesis.
Ikhsan said he was initially quite scared about going to campus as Depok, where the first three COVID-19 cases in Indonesia were reported, is still considered a hotbed for COVID-19 infection.
The condition is a far cry from his native city of Serang, three hours away from the campus. On Nov 18, Serang reported just 11 new infections, while Depok had 120 new cases.
“In August, I started to come to campus and stayed at a friend’s place. In September, I started coming more frequently. In October, I decided to again rent my own place in Kukusan,” he said.
Ikhsan said the majority of those who chose to stay in Kukusan are final year students and those who are from outside of Jakarta. He is both.
“Internet connection in my hometown is fine. But it is just more practical for me to stay in Kukusan. Because of my thesis, I need to use the labs, I need to visit the library and most importantly, there is less distraction here,” he said.
But staying in Kukusan made him feel quite isolated.
“Before the pandemic, there can be dozens of people using this one lab. We can ask each other questions, discuss ideas and consult lab technicians and lecturers about our findings. Now, there is only four of us here, two undergrads and two graduate students,” he said.
“At night, the whole campus and the surrounding neighbourhoods are very quiet. All the restaurants and shops are closed. The students who live in Jakarta have all gone home.”
Muhammad, the geophysics student, also shared the feeling of loneliness.
“Before this, I could hang out with my friends, go to campus together, dine out together. The neighbourhood was pretty much alive even at midnight,” he said.
“Now, I do everything on my own. It’s quite sad actually. I hope everything returns to normal soon.”