Bali has long been an outlier among Indonesia’s 17,500 islands. Its Hindu leanings stand out in the Muslim-majority nation and have helped – along with the tropical climate and Instagram appeal – shape the Island of the Gods’ reputation as a destination that not only enriches visitors culturally, but also feeds the accounts of social media influencers. Another way in which it diverges from the rest of the country is in its coronavirus case count.
Of Indonesia’s more than 7,000 confirmed cases, Bali has reported just 140, and three fatalities. On April 14, English-language newspaper The Jakarta Post reported that the island’s governor, Wayan Koster, “had no intention of implementing large-scale social restrictions”. Speaking at a press conference the previous day, Koster had seemed confident that most of Bali’s cases had been imported by returning migrant workers and community transmission remained low.
Although a state of emergency was declared in March, enforcing a 14-day self-quarantine on all arrivals and shuttering most beaches, the governor said there was still “a long way to go” before stricter measures – compulsory social distancing and the closure of public areas, shopping malls and places of worship – known as PSBB, would be introduced. On April 1, the central government had gone a step further and barred all foreign nationals, apart from diplomats, humanitarian workers and those with residency permits, from entering Indonesia. But a number of tourists remain and, without clear policies in place, tensions between local residents and Bali’s hangers-on have been rising.
The main source of tension is the behaviour of those from overseas, who continue to eat, pray, love, party and surf as though everything were completely normal. The Balinese, meanwhile, have accepted their civic responsibility to stay at home whenever possible. As one Bali-based surf blogger recently put it, “I do not see one single Indonesian citizen, other than the hookers, out and about.”
On April 12, guests at a socially close 21st birthday bash, most of whom appeared to be from overseas, foolishly shared footage of their frolics publicly. Online comments translated by news site Coconuts Bali ranged from the disappointed (“We are doing our best to not leave our homes, to lessen interaction with others so that we don’t infect or get infected, but here they are partying hard”) to the understandably angry (“Bali has a lot of barbaric guests […] The locals are compliant, but the foreigners are being trash like this”), with one even comparing the island’s tourism industry to colonisation.
In a video posted by Bali authorities, Mahmoud Attiya, the Egyptian pilot who hosted the party, apologised for having done so, explaining that he had not expected so many people to attend.
Foreigners have been caught misbehaving elsewhere on the island. Website Indonesia Expat reports that the police in Klungkung regency received several reports of foreigners riding the waves on April 11 and 12, and a Lithuanian man was apprehended after scaling a beach barricade, according to Australia’s Seven News. His apology, presumably encouraged by his captors, was later posted on Instagram.
There may be discord between the groups but there is one thing that unites residents and travellers in Bali, and that is scepticism over the number of cases being reported. More than 110,000 tourists from mainland China visited the island in January, before the threat of the virus was fully understood. And even though cases linked to travellers from mainland China popped up in Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand and beyond in late January and throughout February, Indonesia did not report its first case until March 2.
If only those shared suspicions could be translated into social responsibility across the board, everyone present on the island might be able to weather the storm a little better, a little safer and a little more respectfully. Regardless of whether people are in Bali for a good time or a long time, they, like the rest of us, are all in the fight against the coronavirus together, and some would do well to remember that.