Ten months in: The pandemic in paradise

Since March 2, more than 580,000 Covid-19 cases have been confirmed in Indonesia and the capital of Jakarta has seen daily surges of more than 1000 cases. But the Indonesian resort island of Bali appears to have had a different experience of CovidTen months into the pandemic, journalist Ian Neubauer reports from the Island of the Gods 

In April, I wrote a report for the Asia Media Centre about what it was like being in Bali just after Indonesia closed its international borders to contain Covid-19. It was a worrying time. Predictions of a public health catastrophe were rife for Indonesia, where the first official Covid-19 wasn't detected until March 2 – only nine days before WHO declared a global pandemic. The country was ill-prepared for the coming storm.

But today in Bali, the only storms most people see make up the stunning cloud formations that form over the coastline at sunset as the island enters the annual monsoon season. I've heard stories about people catching Covid-19 but I don't know anyone who's fallen ill. The only place I see the pandemic is on the evening news. 

What makes things even more mysterious is that Bali never had a hard lockdown. The beaches were closed for three months, much to the displeasure of surfers and dog owners. Bali's famous nightlife was also switched off and the normally-heaving tourist districts of Kuta, Seminyak, and Ubud became ghost towns overnight. 

Life is returning to normal in Bali and sunset crowds have returned to Seminyak Beach

Life is returning to normal in Bali, and sunset crowds have returned to Seminyak Beach. Photo: Ian Neubauer

But other than that, life went on as normal, only with masks. The deadly outbreak experts warned of never eventuated, with the official number of new cases numbers falling to a 14-day moving average of 40 cases per day in July. There was a brief and worrying spike of around 200 cases per day in mid-August – exactly two weeks after domestic travel resumed in Indonesia on July 31 – but new cases of Covid-19 have now stabilised at around 100 per day. It's like a miracle took place on the island. 

But no miracle has taken place, says Dr Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist who has helped formulate Indonesia’s Ministry of Health pandemic management strategy for 20 years, and Professor Gusti Ngurah Mahardika, Bali’s most senior virologist. 

Both experts believe there has been outbreak after outbreak in Bali. But more than eight in 10 cases are asymptomatic because of the very young demographic. 

New Normal Health and safety Protocol Displayed at Karma Kandara Beach Club

New health and safety protocol signs displayed at Karma Kandara Beach Club. Photo: Ian Neubauer

“If you look at the age structure in Bali, the median age is only 29,” Professor Gusti says. “But if you compare it to America where 16 percent of the population is more than 70 years old, it provides a reasonable explanation as to the low number of reported cases in Bali.” 

Dr Budiman says poor testing and tracing is also making things look rosier than they really are in Bali: “From the start of the pandemic until now, Indonesia has been among the lowest-ranked nations in terms of testing and tracing capacity. Low surveillance means low quality of data. So, you cannot really say you are safe because you do not know what's really going on.” 

Even if the true number of infected were 10 or fifty times higher than the official figure, Bali has turned out to have been a pretty good shelter for tourists who tend to have savings and work online.  

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the army of cleaners, waiters, drivers, cooks, construction workers, and clerks that once powered the island's all-important tourism sector.  

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Batu Bolong Beach in Bali. Photo: Ian Neubauer

Statistics Indonesia puts Bali's jobless number at 105,000. But if one includes the informal economy that accounts for around two-thirds of the country's workforce, the number of unemployed is more than a quarter of a million. And if you factor in a couple of dependents for each of the jobless – a young wife and newborn baby, a sister at university, elderly parents in the country, a frail old grandmother who needs expensive medicine – there are probably around a million people who've lost the ground under their feet. 

Some of the unemployed have returned to their ancestral villages and taken up farming. But it's backbreaking work and the pay is lousy – as little as NZ$5 per day. Most have opted to stay in the city, squeezed like sardines into the slums and housing projects of the capital Denpasar. They are selling their refrigerators, clothes and motorbikes, borrowing money to survive. 

But good things have also come from the pandemic. The Balinese' belief in karma – the idea that if you do good, good things will happen to you – has helped keep society together. You can see it on the street: people helping each other with simple courtesies and kindnesses. Charities big and small have popped up like mushrooms to feed the hungry. Many restaurateurs have turned their once-thriving businesses into community kitchens, while innovative new businesses and home-delivery services have widespread consumer support.  

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The Balinese community has come together to help one another during the pandemic, writes Ian Neubauer. Photo: Ian Neubauer

The grinding traffic that cursed the island is no more and the beaches are cleaner than they have been since the 1970s when mass tourism kicked-off. Some politicians are also calling for a rethink of the runaway development that's turned real jungles into concrete ones. 

Looking forward, there is a consensus among analysts and investors that Bali is going to bounce back bigger than ever after Covid-19 vaccines are distributed and global travel resumes. The island has consistently ranked among the most desirable post-pandemic travel destinations on the 'wish lists' of popular travel and accommodation bookings sites. Scores of people are buying hotel rooms in Bali at discounted rates for 2021 without any guarantee they will be allowed to fly. And there are already up to 9,000 domestic tourists flying in from principally Jakarta and Surabaya every day. The nightclubs in Seminyak are busy again while the best cafes and restaurants of Canggu are doing a roaring trade. 

“From an operational perspective, Bali is ready to let foreign tourists in again,” says Sebastian Marteau, general manager of the Karma Kandara beach club and luxury clifftop resort on Bali's Bukit Peninsula.  

“All the big hotels and tourist attractions have been retooled for social distancing and new health and hygiene protocols have been put into place. The only thing we're waiting for is for other countries to let their people travel overseas again.” 

- Asia Media Centre