COVID-19 in Bali

End of March 2020: Indonesia's government finally admits what every intelligent person has known for a long time: SARS-CoV-2 has arrived in Indonesia. The first measures, such as curfews for days at a time, are announced. For most people here in Bali this is as entertaining as a fire drill.

April 2020: Assembly bans are imposed nationwide, but are rarely respected, both here and in the big cities. The virus is still not taken seriously, and the extent of the infections is largely unknown, as testing is almost non-existent. At the very last minute, the government imposes a travel ban to prevent millions of its Islamic citizens from making family visits on the holidays around Ramadan. However, with a lead time of several days until the ban comes into force, they sabotage the efficiency of their own measures. The numbers in Bali are still low. The virus is mainly brought to the island by returning guest workers. In the media, social and other, speculations are spreading about the "mysterious immunity" of the Balinese against the new virus.

May 2020: The mandatory wearing of masks is introduced nationwide and mostly ignored. The government has its hands full trying to curb the wanderlust of Jakarta Muslims, with only moderate success. Because the testing capacity is still extremely low, the rumor mill is bubbling. Reports in the international media repeatedly speak of an excess mortality in the greater Jakarta area that is not explained by the official COVID deaths: Already in March, about 40% more burials are said to have taken place there than normally this month. The numbers in Bali are still very low with 0 to 20 infections per day, but slowly people here are realizing that the main holiday season will probably start without tourists.

June 2020: Now the government gets the bill for its only half-hearted measures. In the east of Java a new hotspot is emerging. And because of marginally expanded test capacities, the numbers in Bali are also going up, albeit modestly. Up to 80 new infections per day are registered and the first deaths are reported. However, most people here are more concerned with their precarious economic situation than with Covid-19 and its health effects. Indonesia is not expected to let tourists back into the country until September, an economic catastrophe for Bali.

July 2020: New hotspots in Sulawesi and other islands are discovered. The number of new infections registered nationwide does not decrease due to the Indonesians' undisciplined handling of the measures ordered by the government, such as social distancing, prohibition of assembly and compulsory masks, but also never rises above 3,000 due to the lack of tests. In Bali, the officially recorded infection numbers often rise to over 100 cases per day and enough people die to silence the rumors about the mysterious immunity of Bali. But basically, the numbers in Bali are still comparatively low in relation to the number of inhabitants.

August 2020: While other countries are already grappling with the second wave of infection, the first wave continues to rage unchecked in Indonesia. Time and again, new records are set in terms of infections and deaths per day. Although the figures in relation to the number of inhabitants are still extremely low, there is no sign of flattening the curve. The voices warning that the number of unreported cases is also extremely high are becoming louder and louder. No wonder, since at the end of August, the number of nationwide tests, at just under 8% of the total population, is far below and the current rate of positive tests, at over 14%, is far above the WHO recommendations.

We, like many others, have long suspected that the official figures cannot be trusted. And now we see it with our own eyes: a death in the neighboring town of Culik. COVID-19 test result positive. The corpse is taken by hospital staff in full body protective suits directly to the cremation site in Culik and burned. The case never appears in the official statistics.

How big is the impact of the pandemic in Bali really?

The low number of tests per day, the fact that the contagion curve points upwards rather than downwards, the notorious non-observance of the regulations in many rural areas and the increasing fear of the Balinese of damaging the family honour if they admit the infection of a member with Covid-19 speak for a high number of unreported COVID cases.

Indications of a moderate course of events are that no one seems to have discovered any signs of excess mortality and that, although there are tens of thousands of expats, a whole army of independent observers, scattered around the island.

Perhaps the spread of the virus in Bali, despite the lack of discipline, is indeed slower than in other parts of the world. Apart from the capital Denpasar, the island consists of rural areas. Life here is different from life in a big city: You stay outside all day long, there is a permanent draught in the often badly built houses, each family lives on its own property, even if it is very small, and then there is the culturally conditioned restraint of the Balinese in dealing with each other: no shaking hands, no hugs.

Although this would be good news for Bali, the virus is clearly not sufficiently under control to find a new normal. The numbers of new infections are too high to think about relaxing measures such as reopening schools and welcoming international tourists. Without tourists no income. Without schools no education. Without discipline no change. The future of Bali is looking grim.

Source: Jackie Pomeroy in her group Bali COVID-19 Update