Letter From Bali: Resilience And Solidarity Amidst The Pandemic

May 30, 2020 | All posts, Letters from..., Opinions and contributions

By Eva van der Ploeg, independent researcher based in Bali

While Indonesia as a whole has over 22,000 confirmed cases of Covid19 and over 1,300 deaths, the island of Bali suffers from secondary consequences that will be representative of many other regions around the globe that rely on tourism as the main source of income.

As is to be expected of the number 1 tourist destination in the world, the local Balinese government responded quickly and scrupulously. Soon after the first cases in China emerged, everyone entering Bali through the airport and other entry points was screened. Where necessary, incomers were quarantined.

The result has been impressive: Bali has seen fewer than 400 cases until this day and never more than 100 active cases at the same time. Only four people have died. Apparently, Covid19 presents with similar symptoms as dengue fever, of which there is an increased number of cases. But even when adding the fatalities attributed to dengue, the number of deaths would be less than 20 in a population of four million.

Unfortunately, the “Island of Gods”, as it is known in Indonesia, suffers badly from secondary consequences of the pandemic. Tourism is currently down 100% compared to one year ago. This is devastating, as around 55% of the population depends on tourism as their main source of income. 2,400 employees have been laid off and another 70,000 are furloughed. Many others have been put on reduced hours (and thus income) for the past two months. Some workers responded fast and returned to their home villages either around Bali or on Java, Timur and Flores. However, many remained and then became stuck when domestic travel was banned by the national government for the past month out of fear that the pandemic would be spread at an increased rate during ‘mudik’ – the outflux of people during Ramadhan to their places of origin.

Balinese families traditionally live together in a large family context. Usually, at least one son remains living with his parents and is joined by his wife and children. Older people are cared for by all family members, usually also those living elsewhere. On the one hand, this means that elderly people are looked after well and are not alone. On the other hand, it means that this vulnerable group is hit as hard as anyone else when their adult children lose their jobs. And the few older people who are alone are in immediate danger of losing work, income and housing, too. We hear heartbreaking stories of people being removed from their ‘kos’ (shared rental living) when they cannot afford the monthly rent. Take the older man who sells doughnuts on one of the main roads of Denpasar. These days he only brings out a small number of doughnuts to sell and is frequently seen sleeping on the pavement.

Photo 1. The man selling doughnuts in Denpasar (credit: Winda Wulandari)

Reports from the ‘kampungs’ (villages) are less depressing. While observing new regulations like wearing face masks and frequent hand washing, older people are reported still to go out. The markets are open, and elderly people go there to sell and buy produce. They are looked after by their families, stimulated to maintain their usual activities and at the same time ‘more protected’ by younger family members as well.

Photo 2. Alternative sembako, including not only basic staples, but also painkillers, soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste and fresh fruit (credit: Kembar Tembau).

There are clearly huge underlying issues of inequality and being underpaid that need to be addressed by national and local governments in the future. However, the rapid changes over the past two months also have some beautiful ‘side effects’. Not only do families look after each other, but the ‘banjar’ (local community) also keeps track of people who may need help.

Photo 3. This man and his family in Singaraja, North Bali, have just received sembako (credit: Eva van der Ploeg).

There are numerous pop-up ‘restaurants’ where people can pick up free meals. This sense of solidarity has extended beyond the Balinese looking after their own. Immigrants from Europe, America and Australia have started projects to support families, both Balinese and those who have not been able to return to where they’d like to be. ‘Sembako’ is distributed to families in need: these are food packages with 9 basic ingredients, including rice, cooking oil, sugar and instant noodles. Some expats have set up random sembako outlets along the main roads to share with those on the road. This sometimes leads to a rush by those interested.

People are inventive; social media are full of people advertising their rice, fruits, vegetables, chickens for sale etc. Many people have started buying directly from the source, instead of going to expensive, usually foreign-owned supermarkets. And amongst these new initiatives and reconnections, amid the sharing and caring, Bali still has the same serene feeling to it. Everyone hopes to welcome back tourists soon to share the beauty and spirituality of the Island of Gods, but in a new way, where locals do not entirely depend on tourism for their income and wellbeing. A seed has been planted.