A Balinese Hindu wears a face mask while presenting offerings during the Penebusan Gering Lara Malaradan ceremony amid the spread of coronavirus outbreak at Dalem Kahyangan Temple in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia on June 13, 2020. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/ Johanes Christo

JAKARTA – The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is helping to launch a study of the coronavirus pandemic on the Indonesian resort island of Bali as infections show an appreciable increase and Australian and Balinese authorities put the blinkers on visions of the two countries opening up a tourism corridor.

The highly-regarded, Atlanta-based institution will help Indonesia’s Health Ministry and local partners to measure the presence of SARS-CoV2 antibodies in an effort to determine the proportion of the population that has had a prior infection.

“This is in contrast to a PCR (or swab) test, that assesses the presence of the virus itself in active, current infections,” CDC’s Jakarta representative, Juliette Morgan, told Asia Times. “Through the survey, Bali will have a better understanding of how much transmission of the virus has occurred.”

“It will give us a more complete picture of what has happened and helps to understand what to expect,” she said. “It should be repeated to monitor the epidemic over time and should be conducted in other cities and locations throughout Indonesia.”

It will be the first scientific initiative to try and answer the question of why the popular tourist destination — originally feared to be a virus Petri dish — has so far had only 895 confirmed infections and six confirmed deaths over the four-month lockdown, along with 553 recoveries.

Diplomats say they hope the field study, to be launched in the next two months, might have some relevance for other parts of Indonesia, where the relatively slow-spreading virus has claimed 2,373 lives out of total caseload of 43,803 patients, about half of them on populous Java.

In the absence of wholesale testing, the accuracy of the figures is open to speculation, with some health groups claiming the cases could be five or even 10 times higher than reported among Bali’s population of 4.5 million, including many long-staying foreign residents.

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

Deaths may be much higher as well because the kelihan, the traditional village leaders who control the graveyards and funeral ceremonies, do not necessarily have to report numbers to local government officials.

But the Balinese medical community remains sanguine about a pending health disaster. “We don’t see it,” says one doctor, whose private hospital is testing 100 patients a day, mostly for employment or travel reasons. “We would welcome a CDC study.”

The doctor says testing has now become a growth industry on the island, with small clinics opening up on a daily basis and prices for both blood and swab tests coming down as a result. “That’s our bread and butter now,” she says.

Given the widespread prevalence of dengue fever on Bali, local doctors have even begun to speculate whether the mosquito-borne disease might provide some sort of protection against the coronavirus.

Balinese appear to be more willing to comply with distancing protocols than foreigners, but a book will soon be distributed through the kelihan network explaining what they should do to keep their communities safe.

Meanwhile, with Bali’s economy deep in the doldrums, Jakarta’s focus has been on an estimated US$9 billion in foreign exchange earnings the island stands to lose before the pandemic runs its full course.

A worker sprays disinfectant to protect against the coronavirus at a Bali beach resort, April 2020. Photo: AFP

Odo Manuhutu, deputy for tourism and creative economy at the Maritime Affairs and Investment Coordinating Ministry, raised the idea of a tourist corridor with Australia, China, South Korea and Japan during a virtual press conference on June 12.

The four countries contributed 2.8 million of the 6.3 million tourists who visited Bali last year, with Australians, who regard the island almost as a second home, seizing back the top ranking it had lost to China in 2018.

Diplomatic sources say Maritime Coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan first referred to the corridor plan at a meeting with Australian Ambassador Gary Quinlan in early April, but nothing has been discussed at an official level since then.

In fact, only days ago the Australian government banned its citizens from leaving the country for a further three months, until mid-September, although it said exceptions may be made for countries like New Zealand.

Bali Governor Wayan Koster has weighed in too, saying he won’t be pressured into opening a travel corridor either, apparently relying on the resilience of the Balinese who have experienced and survived economic downturns before.

The pandemic is clearly having the worst impact, but the devastating 2002 Bali bombing, which claimed 202 lives, and the more recent eruption of Mt Agung, both left the island bereft of tourists for months.

“We will not be provoked by people poking us to quickly open tourism,” Koster said, referring to tourism operators and other businessmen and also possibly Panjaitan, who said in May he hoped Bali would be the first province to be declared Covid-free.

Balinese in traditional wears and face masks at the Melasti ritual, March 22, 2020. Photo: Facebook

Infections on Bali have been increasing at 30 a day since the second week of June, considerably more than previously. But testing rates are also increasing and the local Covid-19 task force has set a target of tracing 25% of confirmed cases.

About 1,400 passengers are arriving by ferry each day from East Java, which has become the new epicenter of Indonesia’s outbreak with 678 out of a national total of 2,373 deaths, more now than the capital Jakarta.

Although the rudimentary rapid blood tests passengers must undergo are generally unreliable, in recent days authorities have decided to move them to Ketapang, the ferry port on East Java’s southeast coast.

Even Australia is still getting new cases and is not yet in a position to open a travel bubble with neighboring New Zealand, one of the few countries in the world that have declared victory over the coronavirus.

Last weekend, more than 60,000 mask-less New Zealanders packed into stadiums to watch two rugby matches, the first time that has happened around the world for months.

Australia’s Health Department said the extension of its travel ban ensures that the government “continues to have an appropriate range of powers available to manage the ongoing pandemic response.”

A medical staff member takes a swab sample from a woman to test for the Covid-19 coronavirus in Denpasar, Bali, June 7, 2020. Photo: AFP/Sonny Tumbelaka

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had hoped to have the safe travel zone in place by the time of the school holidays in July, but that is now unlikely to happen given the protocols and other details that still have to be worked out.

When it does happen, perhaps towards the end of the year, officials say it could be held up as a model for other countries to follow. But they note that much depends on the level of confidence that the place where people are arriving from is safe.

As one notes: “Does anyone believe Indonesia has its numbers right or its safeguards in place?” In Bali’s case, at least, the CDC study may help to answer a question that laymen have been asking for months.