The Bali economy is in dire straits but the hospitals are not overflowing and morgues reporting business as usual. Is it luck? Are the statistics lulling us into a false sense of security or could we actually be welcoming tourists back before the year is out?
Indonesia is the second most popular destination for Australians after New Zealand, and Bali represents the bulk of the 1.4 million of us who visited in 2019 (ABS/TRIPS). The Coronavirus has so far been kind to Bali, but it has hit the economy hard. An island one tenth the size of Tasmania, tourism represents at least 80% of the official economy of the “Island of the Gods”. Tourist arrivals started dwindling in March and came to a complete standstill within a few weeks. Denpasar airport has been closed to international flights since early April. Some long-term tourists decided to stay, some are stranded as the Immigration Department has extended all short-stay Visas without penalty.
Most hotels are near empty, some high end properties allegedly offer rooms for a month at the pre-virus daily rate. Those that can, maintain a skeleton staff to keep people working, others are boarded up with only security staff still hanging around.
Some restaurants catering to tourists are staying open and offer take-away and delivery services. The ubiquitous Gojek scooter drivers are still picking up whatever small trips they can. The shopping malls are like ghost towns, most beaches have been closed for quite a while, and shops and markets operate on reduced hours.
In an economy where people generally live from one pay to the next, many struggle and charitable “food-banks” are popping up everywhere. Food is still in abundant supply and cheap, $12-15 feeds a family for a week.
Despite all this, there is little apparent sense of despair. The Balinese go about their daily chores as always, with a smile. Although it is harder for the large contingent of Javanese “guest” workers who do not have a Bali village to go back to, for the locals the Banjar – the local community – looks after its own.
The Balinese have a deep-rooted sense of place, family and tradition. That community spirit is at the core of a people that have learnt to live with famine, natural disasters and foreign invasion. (The Dutch colonial masters could never exercise the same control over Bali as they did over the rest of the archipelago, not least because of a decentralised system of governance – the Banjar rules.)
And it is that same spirit that may well be one reason Bali has so far escaped the worst of the Coronavirus health impact. The official statistics for Indonesia shows that the fourth most populous country in the world – 273 million – has so far showed a remarkable resilience to the virus with 64 cases per million, compared to the US with 4,619 per million. There may well be many more cases in Indonesia than what the statistics show, and the capital Jakarta has reported much higher death rates indicating that, but the disparity between Indonesia and the US cannot be easily explained away. Even by Trump.
In the transparent society of Bali, Governor I Wayan Koster has been on the front foot throughout much of this crisis. He has been an inclusive leader exercising caution and defied President Jokowi when Jakarta was dragging its feet. And he has enlisted the full cooperation of the eight regencies that make up the Bali administration, which together with the Banjars ensure that decrees are followed on the local level.
Most people wear a mask, shops enforce it and people respect it. Roadblocks are set up in almost every Banjar where the local “police” – the Pecalang – checks that masks are worn and hand sanitisers provided. The biggest source of infections are returning cruise ship workers; but after a few slipped through the cracks in the early days, they are now tested and quarantined on arrival if testing positive. In the few instances where local transmission has started, the whole area has been put in lockdown. And in a place where ceremonies are an integral part of daily life, even that is kept to a minimum as social distancing rules are mostly observed.
It is by no means perfect, but so far it appears to have worked. Borne out not just by the numbers, but by what is otherwise evident. There are few reports of an excessive number of burials or funerals, no over crowded hospitals and ventilator equipped ICU’s are left unused.
Many still claim that the numbers are under-stated. There are also many other theories as to why the Coronavirus has not been as devastating as many predicted here. The climate is one reason claimed by some, but yet to be proven. Another is that there was a very high number of Dengue fever cases this rainy season and some of those may have been Coronavirus. And then there is the theory that Bali got it earlier than most, but infections were limited, not the least because of a very young demographic. Yet another theory says Bali has already reached herd immunity.
And it’s not over yet. But last week the Ministry of Tourism hinted at the possibility of opening up for selected tourism arrivals in October this year. Australia and New Zealand may well have their travel bubble by then. Baring a change of virus fortunes, extending the bubble to Bali may be on the cards.