• Ines Abraham

COVID-19 drives Bali into poverty

Hunger is not a new phenomenon in Bali. Especially the rural areas in the east of Bali were marked by systemic poverty well before the pandemic. Unlike the rest of the island, the northern east of the island is very dry, leaving the inhabitants with little to grow, and in particularly dry years, nothing at all. These people, who have known virtually nothing but a life of chronic malnutrition,live in remote villages, invisible to most visitors and tourists. There has never been any government aid.

Photo: w_sutha

And then the pandemic struck. The people in the south of the island, on the coasts or near popular tourist destinations, who previously had a job that, if they were lucky, paid them the official minimum wage or even more, were more or less all dismissed or put on a ridiculous fraction of their salary. Those who were in self-employment have nothing left to do. Savings, if any, have long since been depleted. These are the new COVID poor. Over the last few decades, they had worked their way out of the poverty they were once born into by their own efforts. They live in houses, not half-ruined shacks like the chronically poor, they have a motorbike, a smartphone, a nicely maintained house temple and maybe even a car. What they don't have at the moment is food for themselves and their families. Many are desperately trying to sell their non-essential belongings to generate money for food. But there is no one who can still afford to buy their motorbike or car.

It is precisely these people who are being hit particularly hard by the current crisis. If you want to look, you can see the poverty in Bali everywhere by now, not only in the remote villages. Behind the walls of their pretty houses, more and more people regularly go to bed hungry, including children. Even the countless volunteers, Indonesians and foreigners, who diligently donated money, collected donations and distributed food to the poor in the early months of the pandemic cannot change the situation, because most of them no longer have the money to do so. With each passing day, poverty grows and aid dwindles.

There is no prospect of improvement. This would require visitors, but they will not come as long as the pandemic in Indonesia rages on unchecked and the containment measures are ignored by large parts of the population. But that's not all: the new phenomenon of COVID poverty has other consequences, some of them with devastating long-term impacts.

Since April, all schools in Indonesia located in areas with high infection rates (and Bali is one of them) have been closed. Here in the rural east of the island, very few families have internet or access to a computer, so children are given homework they must pick up regularly at their school. In January, the schools are supposed to start operating again, of course under many conditions such as teaching in half-classes with social distancing and with the windows open. But as much as the children would like to go to school: There will be many empty chairs, especially in the higher classes, because families can no longer afford the school fees, transport costs or accommodation for their children. Alternative offline education is also only an option for very few of the young people, because even relatively small amounts for data transfer via mobile phone are unaffordable for many families. This hits the growing generation at the very core, because education is the only sustainable way out of poverty.

Many parents know this and would like to offer their children this opportunity. But at the moment they are glad if they can give them enough to eat. This is all they can afford. Often not even that.

COVID-19 is throwing back the tentatively positive economic development of the ordinary Balinese population by many years. People who at the beginning of this year were still able to live well on their income, feed their families and give their children a better education, have to rely on charity, are selling their cars and motorbikes in their misery, with which they could perhaps earn money again after the crisis, and are possibly selling the little land they own. Their children are not only falling with them into a poverty they never knew before. The young generation is also deprived of the chance to build a better life for themselves thanks to a good education.

To prevent the children in Lipah, our village part of Bunutan, from going to bed hungry or having to drop out of school, we are constantly admitting more families to our emergency aid programme. There are now 105 families of a total of about 130 who receive our regular food parcels. By the end of the year, there will be even more, no doubt.

The only contribution we ask the recipients to make in return is to bring us for each of our aid packages at least one rice bag full of plastic waste, which will then be properly sorted and disposed of by Heike de Haan from our partner organisation Peduli Alam. This way, our village will at least be one of the cleanest on the whole island when hopefully the visitors will return one day.

Until then, however, Bali's old and new poor are facing what is likely to be a long dry spell.

We are helping now. Please help us to ease the hunger of Lipah's children and to revive their hope for the future.