A mask-clad Balinese woman during the Galungan holiday at Jagatnata temple in Denpasar, Indonesia's resort island of Bali. Photo: AFP/Sonny Tumbelaka

Nearly three months into the Covid-19 pandemic and there is little to suggest that the Indonesian resort island of Bali is in the grip of a pending public health disaster with only 86 cases and two deaths.

That’s despite the fact the wider archipelagic nation is now widely seen as Southeast Asia’s slow-ticking coronavirus time bomb with the region’s highest number of cases at 4,839 as of April 14. Infections to date have been heavily concentrated on populous Java island.  

“I find it puzzling too because it doesn’t make sense,” says Rio Helmi, a long-time Balinese resident who writes a regular blog on life around the mountain town of Ubud about the low number of cases on Bali. “We don’t have the data, but there’s been no sign of a spike in deaths.”

Nor are there stories of hospitals overflowing, a sharp increase in cremations or any other anecdotal evidence that the coronavirus is running rampant on the Hindu-majority island’s 4.2 million population, among them thousands of foreign residents.

For example, the coastal village of Pererenan, a popular surfing location at the northern end of the Balinese tourist strip, has yet to have a Covid-19 case, according to local Balinese residents.  Other nearby villages also appear to be free of the virus.

“We’re just not hearing about a huge death toll out there,” says Jack Daniels, a long-established tour operator and editor of the weekly on-line newsletter Balidiscovery.

He notes that both of the island’s Covid-19 deaths so far have been foreigners, including a British woman with underlying health issues.

Goverment officers spray the desinfectan liquid to road users to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Bali, Indonesia, on March 23, 2020. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/Agoes Rudianto

The Bali capital of Denpasar has four crematoriums which don’t appear to be any more active than usual, even if Balinese do sometimes temporarily bury their dead to wait for an auspicious day to perform traditional funeral rites.

Private hospitals only now appear to be acquiring test kits, but the doctor at one Bali institution says it has referred only two or three suspected cases to the island’s state-run hospitals in the past fortnight without getting any feedback, supposedly because of patient confidentiality.

In fact, state hospitals are refusing to make public figures that may be at variance with Health Ministry data, which also lists only 38 cases and two deaths on the neighboring Nusa Tenggara island chain, including Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores and West Timor with a combined 9.8 million population.

With Jakarta and the surrounding provinces of West Java and Banten declaring a range of new social restrictions, President Joko Widodo finally announced a state of national emergency on April 13 and urged officials to be more transparent in sharing information.

But it isn’t clear what the new emergency status means on the ground, apart from setting clearer lines of authority. The president has again felt compelled to urge his much-criticized health minister, Terawan Agus Putranto, to raise Covid-19 swab tests to 10,000 a day.

That would be almost the same number the government has conducted in all of the past two months, equivalent to 41 per million people. There have been more rapid-tests, but they are far less reliable and are not included in the government’s tally.

A woman wearing a face mask stands on a street in Jakarta on March 2, 2020. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

The weak social distancing policy so far has seen passengers crammed together on Jakarta’s bus and train services, and city dwellers are uncertain about what travel restrictions, if any, will be imposed on the usual exodus from the capital Jakarta for the post-Ramadan holidays next month.

Worried about social unrest, Widodo is struggling to strike a balance between confronting an ever-growing caseload of 300-400 new infections a day, and trying to keep the economy ticking over so workers in the informal sector can at least retain an income.

He is also irritated at the slow dispersal of funds to an estimated 2.8 million newly-unemployed in the real economy as part of an initial $6.6 billion social safety net package announced last week. 

Health workers in Bali have had to deal with the added threat of a recent outbreak of dengue fever, a sometimes fatal disease which has similar flu-like symptoms as Covid-19. Late rains have been responsible for about 2,000 dengue cases in the Ubud area and an unusually high number in southern Bali.

There has also been a serious outbreak of dengue fever further afield, in East Tenggara province, which only reported its first case of Covid-19 last weekend.

What makes the Bali situation so perplexing is that the number of Chinese tourist arrivals to Bali actually increased by 3% in January, the same month of the Wuhan lockdown. In fact, they were still arriving up until February 5 when authorities finally moved to ban anyone who had been in China in the previous 14 days.

While all foreign tourism was finally stopped on March 31, significant numbers of the estimated 20,000 Balinese employed in the international cruise ship industry, often described as a petri dish for the virus, have filtered back to the island without going into quarantine, claim local residents.

A worker disinfects a beach area to protect against the spread of Covid-19. Photo: Twitter

Australians and Chinese made up about 2.5 million of the 5 million tourists who visited Bali last year. Economists and travel experts are now saying it will take a year for the industry to begin recovering and even then it may only be a trickle because of doubts about whether the virus is being properly contained.

According to diplomatic sources, there are up to 5,000 Australians still in Bali, many of them residents who either have businesses or are living in retirement. That’s the largest bloc of foreigners, but there are also thousands of other nationalities on the legendary tourist island. 

Among them are scores of foreign prisoners who are being offered early freedom under a controlled release program provided they have served two-thirds of their sentences and are not in jail for narcotics and other international crimes.

As of April 1, the Indonesian Hotel and Restaurant Association listed 270 Bali hotels among 1,149 hotels that had closed nationwide because of the pandemic. But officials say the list is growing longer by the day, with those which have stayed open reporting occupancy rates below 10%.

The Bali Hotel Association has denied reports circulating on social media that some of the island’s first class hotels have recently gone up for sale, but acknowledges that many of the 170 four and five-star establishments have temporarily closed their doors.

The Bali tourist industry hasn’t been hit this hard since the 2002 terrorist bombings, which left the local economy in tatters for the following two years as Australian holiday-makers stayed away in droves. A further bombing in 2005 only compounded its difficulties.