Lianne Chia, East Java – In August, 17-year-old Tasya Aprilia Agatha lost her father to COVID-19. It left the family struggling to survive.
As a delivery driver and sole breadwinner, he used to earn just enough for the family every month. With his death, an alternative source of income was needed, and Tasya had to step up.
Six days a week, she wakes at 4am to help her mother run a makeshift food stall, while juggling school and working in a cafe. She gets about four hours' sleep a day.
"I'm working because I want to help my mother and to pay my school fees," she said. "I can use my income ... to pay my own expenses. I don't have to ask my mother (for money)."
The high school senior in Kediri city in East Java dreams of going to university and becoming a businesswoman. But with her punishing schedule, her school grades have slipped.
Many other students in Indonesia have dropped out amid the pandemic.
According to a September 2021 World Bank report, about 2 per cent of children aged five to 18 who had been enrolled in school up to March 2020 were no longer enrolled in November 2020. That is about 1.3 million students.
The most cited reason for dropping out was lack of money to pay school fees.
"It may be that some of these children are re-enrolling now ... But it's also likely that many dropped out permanently and have been joined by other student drop-outs during 2021," noted World Bank senior education specialist Noah Yarrow.
The pandemic has had far-reaching implications for Indonesia's children, their education and future, which the programme Insight explores.
When studying is hard to do
Even for those in school, the long periods of lockdown posed a challenge when classes had to move online."When we had questions, it was so difficult to ask, even if we tried to explain (them) on WhatsApp," said Tasya. "Direct interaction is much better."
Her teacher, Yurni, agreed, adding that most of the parents – who are in the medium- and low-income brackets – may also be unable to provide what the students need most: Adequate internet connection.
"Sometimes when we reached out (to the children), they said they were unable to join the online class. We asked them why, and they said they were running out of internet quota," said the teacher, who goes by one name.
Although more schools have reopened, catching up on what students have missed is another challenge.
According to the World Bank report, only 30 per cent of Indonesian children achieved minimum scores in reading on the Programme for International Student Assessment before the pandemic.
The report estimates that school closures precipitated by the pandemic could result in a loss of between 25 and 35 points, on average, on students' reading scores.
A Unicef report also noted that an increased drop-out rate from school closures puts children at risk of child marriage and exploitative activities.
Minister of Women's Empowerment and Child Protection Bintang Puspayoga acknowledged that child marriage and child labour are "on the rise" owing to the unavoidable "economic pressure" from the pandemic.
"We need to build a support system together in the form of a safe and comfortable environment for them," she said.
But once the children drop out, they are left with no option but to join the workforce. After earning money, some do not turn back.
Take, for example, 10-year-old Rizki: He has been working as a street clown in Depok city in West Java for a year.
The money he earns – around two million rupiah (S$190) a month – helps to pay the rent on the house he shares with his 24-year-old brother Iksan and his brother's wife, Endah.
Endah has tried to persuade Rizki to get an education so he can apply for better jobs in future. But when asked if he wanted to return to school, he said: "No, I don't. We need money to pay the house rent."Rizki, 10, escaped from an abusive stepfather to live with his older brother.
Supporting the carers
The odds are stacked even higher against children who are left with no one to care for them. An estimated 34,000 Indonesian children have lost one or both parents to COVID-19.
To protect orphans, the Indonesian government has legislation in place when it comes to finding substitute carers, with immediate family members called upon first.
According to Bintang, a team headed by the local office of the Social Affairs Ministry will make sure that "the right substitute carers" are found.
"We need to make sure the children are protected and ... won't be neglected later," she said. "We have to make sure they won't be exploited and trafficked."
But even if a suitable carer is found, financial help is also often necessary.
Brothers Dona and Beni, aged 17 and 11 respectively, lost their mother to COVID-19 in July. After she died, their father abandoned them to the care of their mother's 72-year-old aunt, Suparti, whom they refer to affectionately as Grandma.
She loves the boys and takes care of them willingly, but it means she must shoulder extra costs.
"Sometimes the little boy asks me what I'm cooking ... If he wants me to cook beef soup, for example, I'd say that we should cook something else. Otherwise, the money won't last for the whole month," she said.
To ease her financial burden and pay his school fees, Dona, a high school senior in Kediri, helps to sell satay in the evening. Beni, meanwhile, receives support from the local government, which covers his fees.
According to Kediri mayor Abdullah Abu Bakar, around 300 children in the city have lost their parents during the pandemic.
To help them and their carers, the local government is working on a programme called "Hope for Family", to be launched this year with the help of the private sector.
The programme includes an initiative to create a bank account for each beneficiary, which the local government will transfer funds to "either monthly or annually", the mayor cited.
Save the Children Indonesia is working on a similar project. In the province of West Java, the non-governmental organisation works with the local office of the Social Affairs Ministry to help children who have lost their main carers.
With hope, braced for the next wave
Today, with close to half the population fully vaccinated, COVID-19 cases have dropped significantly since July, when Indonesia battled a second wave of infections driven by the Delta variant.
The country's daily count dropped to below 100 new cases at one point in December, but it has since started to increase again, with the prevalence of the Omicron variant.
Last month, Indonesia also started vaccinating children aged six to 11, to further contain the spread of the virus.
Their education is of equal concern, however, with Yarrow noting that there are "lots of different actors and different levels of government trying to provide support".
"Recovering from the learning loss during COVID and improving beyond it are major challenges," he said.
This is something Indonesian authorities must grapple with even as they prepare for a new wave of infections. "We pray that it won't happen and that things will return to normal," said Abdullah.
"The number of school drop-outs has actually decreased. But because of COVID-19, it's increasing again. We have to keep the number in check because the best investment is education for our children."Tasya hopes to make it to university to study business management.
For now, Tasya is persevering, hoping that she will have the stamina to continue with her studies. Indeed, there is some hope: Her mother, Sumini, is likely to be one of the beneficiaries of Kediri's new assistance scheme.
The 47-year-old is a high school drop-out herself. All she wants is that Tasya does better than she did and continues to chase her dreams despite the challenges.
"Don't be like your mother ... Education is important," said the widow. "My wish for her is that she becomes someone who's responsible for herself and cares about others." – CNA/lc(dp)