Asia Life | Society | East Asia

Hong Kong-Indonesian Couples Caught in the Middle Amid COVID-19 Travel Restrictions

Plans for a travel bubble between Hong Kong and Indonesia have been put on hold, disappointing couples who have been left separated by closed borders.

Jason Hung
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Hong Kong-Indonesian Couples Caught in the Middle Amid COVID-19 Travel Restrictions
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Siqbal

Hong Kong has been fighting a third wave of COVID-19 infections since July 22. Daily confirmed cases in the triple digits were recorded from July 22 to August 2, except on July 28. Stricter social distancing measures came into force starting on July 22, where gatherings of more than two people were prohibited and restaurants were only allowed to provide takeaway services.

With the new wave of COVID-19 in the city, the discussion on forming a Hong Kong-Indonesia travel bubble scheme was suspended. Meanwhile, back in mid-August, the Indonesian government cancelled their plan to open Bali to international travelers on September 11. The borders of the province will remain closed at least until the end of 2020. Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, has been in lockdown again since September 14.

The restrictions on international travel are difficult for those who have close connections with countries apart from their current home. The suspension of a Hong Kong-Indonesia travel bubble, alongside tightened COVID-19 preventive measures in both Hong Kong and Indonesia, could inflict frustration on Hong Kong-Indonesia couples. Some fear they might not be able to see their partners until an effective mass COVID-19 vaccination is carried out.

Jase, 25, of Hong Kong has been in a relationship with Mili, 29, of Indonesia for nearly two years. Neither of them could have anticipated that they would not be able to see each other for eight months – with no end to the separation in sight. “It is very frustrating, especially when my partner is my closest companion who I used to visit her every two to three months,” said Jase. “I do believe each visit to Indonesia was an opportunity for me to get rid of the everyday stress from studies and work. As a person who has a handful of close friends, it is important for me to visit my girlfriend whenever I am available as a means to secure some forms of psychological support.”

“I am mostly in denial to feel that I miss my partner because I do not want to be so desperate to an extent that would affect my mental health. As far as we still have good communications, I think it is fine to be separated for a prolonged duration,” Mili said. “I expect that cases in Indonesia may flatten and vaccines may be launched in the market by the end of this year, and I will be able to see my boyfriend again,” she continued.

Arina, an Indonesian man in his 20s, also expressed his frustration that he has not been able to visit his Hong Kong boyfriend due to the outbreak of the pandemic. “We [my boyfriend and I] made adjustments and turned our status into an open relationship,” he said. “During the outbreak of the COVID-19, we have had a lot of quarrels on when we should get married, as I believe getting married is the only shortcut that I can visit my partner amid the pandemic.”

Dara, an Indonesian women in her 30s, was growing close to a Hong Kong man during the pandemic. However, the public health concerns are among the reasons why she cut building further connections with the guy. “Frankly speaking, I do not think we are able to travel again in the near future. It is likely that we have to live in an environment filled with risks of getting COVID-19 infections for some time. Therefore, we should try to protect ourselves by maintaining social distancing and avoiding unnecessary contacts before scientists find reliable COVID-19 vaccines,” she said.

“We had plans to meet each other in Shanghai when the COVID-19 ends, but it seems the pandemic will not go away in the near future and that was one of the reasons that discouraged me from starting a relationship with him,” Dara added.

Among these individuals, Jase is the only one who has been satisfied with his home government’s COVID-19 responses. “I think the Hong Kong government is very responsive when it comes to handling the COVID-19 circumstances. Despite the outbreak of the third wave, the Hong Kong government applied social distancing regulations, when necessary,” he said. And, despite the impact it has had on him personally, he even believes the travel restrictions are for the best. “It is reasonable for the government to suspend the discussion on forming a travel bubble with Indonesia, since both regions are not optimistic with respect to containing the crisis,” Jase said.

Jase not think a travel bubble between Hong Kong and Indonesia will be formed by the end of 2020, as Indonesia has shown no signs of lowering the daily confirmed cases and Hong Kong may plausibly encounter a fourth wave of COVID-19 in the next months. He additionally cited Vietnam as an example. The Southeast Asian country was internationally acclaimed as one of the safest countries amid the pandemic, but even it remains closed to travelers. Jase pointed out that Vietnam has postponed the opening of international borders from July to October, and is likely to further defer its opening to international tourism. Therefore, for him, having an expectation that a Hong Kong-Indonesia travel bubble will be formed by the end of this year is unrealistic.

Mili, Jase’s girlfriend in Indonesia, criticized her government for its slow responses to the public health crisis. She also argued that many measures implemented by the Indonesian government were not scientifically supported.

Arina also denounced the Indonesian government. He thought its decisions in response to COVID-19 have been grounded on many misconceptions. Also, he noted there has been a lack of transparency regarding the government’s public health decisions. Moreover, he was dissatisfied with the government’s delayed exercises of public health measures: “They [the Indonesian government] learnt the existence of COVID-19 within the country in March, initially decided their public health strategies in April, administered in June and launched campaigns in August.”

Unless both the governments of Hong Kong and Indonesia take prompt and scientifically-grounded actions to limit the spread of COVID-19, the formation of a travel bubble between the two regions will continue to be deferred. And transnational couples will continue to be kept apart by closed borders.

Jason Hung is a Ph.D. in sociology candidate at the University of Cambridge and the author of “Social Barriers to, and Gender Gaps in, Educational Attainment Faced by Rural Citizens in China.”