Feature story

How the LGBTI community is surviving the COVID-19 pandemic in Indonesia

25 May 2021

For Vanessa Chaniago, a young transgender woman living in Jakarta, Indonesia, the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic were filled with fear. “I was really struggling to make ends meet. I had been working for a civil society organization, which was a great place to learn and develop strong networks, but unfortunately the income was not sufficient to sustain me and my family. My income drastically declined,” she said.

According to a survey conducted by the Crisis Response Mechanism (CRM) Consortium of 300 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in Indonesia, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused most LGBTI people to have experienced layoffs or reductions in income or to close their businesses. Most LGBTI people work in sectors with a higher risk of COVID-19: 20.5% in the beauty industry, 19.5% in the health sector and 12.8% in the service industry. Unfortunately, most of the respondents do not have long-term savings—30% would only be able to survive for two to three months on their savings, and 64% are not able to access loans.

Reflecting back on more than a year of the pandemic, Ms Chaniago said that the situation didn’t rapidly improve and instead got more challenging as time went on. “I decided to start a small business, selling beef rendang and other Indonesian street food. Opening a business during the pandemic wasn’t ideal, and not long after the opening I had to close down my store. Now I continue my small business on the streets.”

Ms Chaniago is determined to survive these trying times and she recognizes that many of her fellow transgender women face bigger hurdles. Many transgender people in Indonesia do not have identity cards, leaving them unable to access social support from the government. The CRM survey found that 51% of respondents did not receive social support from the government and those that tried to receive it faced many challenges in accessing it.  

On top of the socioeconomic struggles they face, discrimination and violence towards the LGBTI community continues—transgender women in Jakarta have even been pranked with aid packages filled with garbage. The CRM survey also found that violence against LGBTI people increased.

Keeping in touch virtually among the community has been essential. Ms Chaniago said, “I want to tell my fellow LGBTI peers that they are not alone. As a community, we must continue to help each other out and fight for what is right.” Unfortunately, the CRM survey found that the community cannot always turn to peers for support, as many don’t have devices or enough Internet data to contact their friends.

Despite the huge hardships, there is a strong sense of optimism and hope for a better life after the pandemic. To get there, however, the LGBTI community needs support, including form the government and the public.

“Everyone has been affected by COVID-19. In Indonesia, many vulnerable groups have struggled to survive not only the pandemic but the devastating impact of loss of livelihoods and income. UNAIDS works with partners to strengthen the protection of vulnerable groups from stigma and discrimination in order to increase equitable access to support and services,” said Krittayawan Boonto, the UNAIDS Country Director for Indonesia.

The CRM Consortium consists of UNAIDS Indonesia and four national civil society organizations—Arus Pelangi, the Community Legal Aid Institute, Sanggar Swara and GWL-Ina. In addition to the survey, the CRM Consortium has mobilized resources for LGBTI people affected by the pandemic through the distribution of food packages, sanitation packages and rent allowances.

The results of the survey are highlighted in a video here.