Pandemic in Paradise


As predictions of a public health catastrophe increase across Indonesia, Australian freelance journalist Ian Neubauer reports from Bali, once the most popular holiday island in Asia, now quietly biding its time. 

For the 114,000 New Zealanders who visited Bali last year, their memories of ordering a cocktail by a pool or riding a wave on a palm-fringed beach are probably peppered with images of the horrendous traffic between the airport and their villa or resort.

But since the COVID-19 crisis crippled the global tourism industry and Indonesia stopped issuing tourist visas last month, Bali's gnarling traffic is no more. The well-trodden tourist traps of Kuta and Seminyak became ghost-towns overnight, where the only signs of life are security guards who stand outside empty boarded-up hotels and restaurants staring listlessly at the sea.

balishopIMG 0142Bali's tourist industry is taking a serious hit from Covid-19/ photo Ian Neubauer

The last tourist holdout, the surfing hub of Canggu, still pulsed with life until April 1st, when the beaches were closed, denying tourists and expats their last vestige of normality. “I still have some friends here, but this place is empty. It's a ghost island,” says Osiris Martinez from Spain.

But in the island's dusty capital Denpasar, the streets and pavements heave with human traffic. The “large scale” social-distancing policy introduced by President Joko 'Jokowi' Widowo is not being respected nor enforced. “I am scared of the virus. But my boss says I have to come to work,” says Made, an optometrist in Denpasar, who like many Balinese goes by only one name.

denpasarIMG 8183 2

Despite caution from tourists, Bali's capital still bustles with everyday business/ photo Ian Neubauer

Asked why he has resisted calls from the country's most prominent physicians and epidemiologists for lockdown, Jokowi said it is not a suitable solution for Indonesia because it will hurt the poor too much.

Nearly one in ten Indonesians live below the poverty line, earning less than US$1 per day and about six in ten work in informal cash-based enterprises. If they don't get out of bed for work in the morning, they may not get to eat at night.

The 400,000-odd Balinese who until recently held tourism jobs are only marginally better off. The government is not offering business owner financial support, and most Indonesians have no access to unemployment benefits.

“If anyone wants to see concentrated misery, just go by any bank branch in your area and you'll see it's full of locals trying to figure out how they're gonna keep eating and hang on to their houses, cars and motorbike. There ain't no government support or big food banks here,” wrote Mark Stahly on a Facebook page for expats.

Balinese man Joe Ar Sakha published a more harrowing post: “I really need a job, any kind of job such as cleaning houses or gardening. I will do anything as long as I get payment. My family are starving.”

People in rural areas of Bali are receiving token assistance in the form of food handouts from the 'Banjar', a local level of government that has taken upon itself to set up informal roadblocks around the island to try to decrease the spread of COVID-19.

Some of the estimated 5,000 expats that remain on the island are also busying themselves with philanthropic activities and food runs. "Solemen Indonesia", a charity that supports 2,340 Balinese with physical and mental disabilities, is selling hand sanitisers to raise funds. “Due to all the cutbacks in our funding from our corporate sponsors, we need to sell as many of these as possible to feed people,” explained the charity's British founder Robert Epstone.

Beyond these feel-good stories and belief by many people here that the hot balmy weather has retarded the spread of the killer virus, it's becoming increasingly hard to ignore mathematical models that suggest a deadly outbreak is looming on Bali's blood-red horizon.

On top of lack of social distancing, Indonesia has one of the poorest testing rates in the world. Only 116 in every million people have been tested, compared to 8,996 for every million people in South Korea and 6,666 in Singapore. These figures are fuelling speculation that COVID-19 is spreading unchecked and like wildfire in the archipelagic nation.

The official number of infected has now topped 4,800. But according to virologists at the University of Indonesia, the actual number of infections in the country may have already reached 1 million.

Indonesia also has one of the highest official COVID-19 fatality rates in the world – 9 per cent. The figure is both a symptom of the under-reporting of mild cases and the country's resource-starved health care system. Italy, second only to the US in recorded deaths from  COVID-19, has the world's second-best healthcare by population size, according to Health Care Rankings. Indonesia though, is ranked 92nd, just ahead of Iran but far behind Spain which is also grappling to control outbreaks even with its more sophisticated health system.

Canggu street sceneJust a handful of surfers remain in Canggu Beach / photo Ian Neubauer

After looking at all these numbers, The Jakarta Post has concluded the pandemic in Indonesia will only end when a vaccine is introduced or herd immunity is reached – both of which are 12 to 18 months down the line. “Thus, at this point, we can only foresee a dark ending to our pandemic story,” the newspaper says.

This brings us to the million-dollar question: why do so many foreigners remain in Bali?

Some have no choice. A friend from the epicentre of the outbreak in northern Italy says she's better off here than there. Another friend from New Jersey told me the same thing. Russian expats, of which there are legions in Bali, would rather take a gambit in paradise than test their mettle in near-freezing temperatures in a totalitarian state.

For the thousands of Antipodeans still on the island who can fly home and claim social welfare payments, the answers are more complex.

Many have invested everything they have in restaurants in Bali, built beautiful villas that are far more comfortable than anything they could ever afford back home, or have Balinese spouses and step-children who they refuse to abandon.

Janette Deneffe, a restaurateur and author from Melbourne living in Bali for more than 30 years believes Bali has a solid track record of dealing with crises. “I've lived through all the most significant milestones in Indonesia: the riots in 1998, the Bali Bombings in 2002 and 2005 and the volcanic eruptions in 2017,” she says. “Every time, they say this place will fall apart, yet it never does. We have been through so much over the years. We are used to trouble. Life goes on.”

My explanation is just as complex. Like many expats, I came to Bali as part of a healing journey and worry that the healing will be undone if I return to Australia. More so, my work – stories like this – are important, the first draft of a chapter in history future generations will read with disbelief. My work also keeps me in good spirits, whereas in Australia all I could do is sit around watching TV. It does not escape me that Australia offers me a much greater chance of staying alive should I get sick. But it can't offer what Indonesia offers right now: purpose in life.

- Asia Media Centre