For the 16,000 Australians who usually live in Bali, the island offers the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card from the bland over-regulated suburbia from whence they came: cheap living, permanent hot weather, exotic culture and strong business and investment opportunities. Even Trump is building a hotel on the island.
But when a virus from China fucked up the world, these expats were faced with an existential decision: return to the relative safety of Australia or stay in paradise and risk getting infected with COVID-19 in a third-world country with third-rate hospitals and a government in denial. “It’s because of our prayers,” said Indonesia Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto when asked in mid-February why not a single case of COVID-19 had been reported in the country.
But the real reason was Indonesia had, and still has, very low testing rates: only 654 out of every million people in the country have been tested compared to 4,099 per million in Thailand and 39,809 in Australia, according to coronavirus tallying site Worldmeter. The disease was spreading undetected through the archipelagic nation, virologists warned, prompting Australia to recall its ambassador from Jakarta and issue a blanket evacuation warning for its remaining citizens in Bali.
“To all Aussies in #Bali,” tweeted Anthea Griffin, Australia’s Consul General on the island. “Are you prepared to wait out #COVID19 for what could be months? Have you considered the pressure you will put on local services? What if you get sick? Can you navigate a foreign system? My staff and I urge you to leave now, there are still flights available.”
Most expats took the bait, rushing home on overpriced flights to face a 14-day quarantine in windowless hotels before trying to find a new place to live in a country under lockdown.
“With a very heavy heart, I just booked a ticket home after reading a reliable source news article saying Australia is recommending its citizens go home as they are not sure if they will need to close the borders soon,” Australian Karma Voice wrote on Facebook.
By April, there were only about 3,000 Australians left on the island and I was among them.
My resolve to stay in Bali was tested on several occasions.
The first time was in late March, when thousands of Hindu worshippers attended a religious ceremony on the beach in front of my house, weeks after the World Health Organisation had declared COVID-19 a pandemic. “There is no coronavirus in Bali,” said a priest when I asked him why they were holding such a dangerously large gathering at the time.
A few days later, my photos of the ceremony and a report I wrote headlined ‘Fears Bali Will Emerge as Indonesia’s Coronavirus Hotspot’ was published online. Moments after it appeared online, people began making threats on social media. “This picture was taken from the older ceremonies that had taken place,” wrote Rendy Mamola. “This report is misleading. This could defame the Balinese people. The local authority should react on this immediately.”
My press credentials were up to date and my research was solid. But if someone filed a complaint with the police, I could be charged with violating laws banning the spread of misinformation in Indonesia that carry a punishment up to six years’ prison time. Bali’s Kerobokan Prison is the last place anyone would want to be during a pandemic. The facility was designed for 352 inmates yet holds 1,670. It goes without saying that social distancing is simply not possible on the inside. So I asked my editor to retract my name from the report. “It’s an extraordinary request,” she replied. “But these are extraordinary times.”
Things then settled down for a bit until about a week later when my flatmate, a guy I’ve known since I was a kid, burst into my room and told me he and his girlfriend were heading to the airport in 10 minutes. The urgency of their departure sent my head into a spin and I got on the blower to ask people in the know for their advice.
“Why would you stay if you don’t have to? It’s clearly a huge risk,” said an Australian journalist who’d worked in Indonesia for 20 years.
“The one thing nobody is talking about – the one thing I fear most – is that conditions are ripe for a military coup,” said a source in Jakarta with high-level government contacts.
“They’re sharpening sticks in there,” whispered a lawyer representing an Australian inmate at Kerobokan prison.
“They think they’re going to die in a cage.”
The writing was on the wall; I had to get out of dodge.
Before packing my bags, I decided to a little investigating and visit the largest hospital on the island. I imagined ambulances lined up outside and patients suffocating in the hallways – the same scenes that were taking place in many different parts of the world at that moment. But there were only half a dozen mulling around outside the emergency ward, none of whom looked like they were ready to croak.
Something was amiss. More than 1.1 million Chinese tourists visited Bali last year, and another 110,000 arrived in January before travellers from China were banned on February 5. All the mathematical models suggested Bali
was going to burn. But nobody I knew was sick and nobody they knew had gotten sick.
“When COVID-19 was first identified in Wuhan, I thought Bali would be one of the first places to be hit hard because of all the Chinese tourists,” Dr Panji Hadisoemarto, an epidemiologist at Padjadjaran University in West Java told me as I pursued my investigation. “I was wrong and I’m now starting to question the assumptions behind these models because the rate of transmission is a lot lower than expected.”
“ALL THE MATHEMATICAL MODELS SUGGESTED BALI WAS GOING TO BURN. BUT NOBODY I KNEW WAS SICK AND NOBODY THEY KNEW HAD GOTTEN SICK."
AUSSIES GIVE BACK
Even as confirmed COVID-19 cases swelled in Jakarta and other parts of Indonesia, President Joko Widodo refused to issue a nationwide lockdown, saying it would hurt the poor too much in a country where nearly one in 10 people earn less than a dollar a day. Instead, the President chose a flexible ‘Indonesian’ response where everyone was asked to practice social distancing and local governments were allowed to set their response policies to outbreaks.
In Bali, where only four people have died of COVID-19, we were pretty much left to our own devices. But one by one, the elements that made up my life were revoked: nightlife, restaurants, co-working spaces, the gym, pool clubs and finally, the beaches.
My mountain bike became the only available form of exercise. I used it to visit places like Kuta, a once-tranquil fishing village with pumping waves discovered by Australian surfers back in the seventies. Unrestrained development in the decades that followed had turned Kuta into one of the world’s worst tourist traps: think gnarling traffic, dilapidated resorts, cheesy theme bars, pesky hawkers, prostitutes and bogans throwing up and throwing punches outside McDonald’s restaurants at two in the morning. But with the tourists now gone, Kuta was peaceful once again, and the normally rubbish-strewn beach was clean as a whistle. “Bali is healing,” said a man fishing off the deserted boardwalk.
But the healing had come at a terrible price for the Balinese. More than 50,000 hospitality jobs and another 100,000 informal support roles vanished overnight, and few could access social security. The average Indonesian earns only AU$289 a month. It’s enough to live on but not enough to save and thousands now found themselves without money for food.
“I really need a job, any kind of job, such as cleaning houses or gardening. I will do anything. My family are starving,” read one of countless similar posts on Facebook pages for expats in Bali.
Some Australian restaurateurs on the island answered their call by opening free food kitchens at their places of businesses. Among them was Josh Herdman of Sea Circus, a famous café with colourful murals near Seminyak Beach. “If you have poor nutrition, your immune system is weak and you’re more at risk from COVID-19,” Herdman said. “So I started the Sea Circus Food Fund to raise money to make nutritious meals with meat, chicken, fish and eggs. On our first day, we gave out 400 meals. Today is our second day and we’re going to feed 600 to 800 people. But we have the capacity at Sea Circus to feed up to 3000 people a day – if people back home continue to support us.”
Simon Lefebvre, an actor who played Plucka Duck on Hey Hey It’s Saturday, began handing out hundreds of meals each day from The Naughty Duck, his restaurant in Kuta. So did Brad Downs, the owner of Tropicana Churros Cafe. “It’s been heart-wrenching to see grown men crying when we give them food for their kids,” he said. “One guy rode his scooter for four hours from east Bali just to get a meal. We gave him nine boxes – it was all he could carry.“The Balinese have welcomed people from all over the world,” Downes said. “They have basically given up their island for tourism. Now tourism has stopped, it’s time for us to give back.”
A couple wash their hands at one of thousands of free hand washing stations set up across Bali under a sign that says masks are compulsory at this wet market in the capital Denpasar.
Many Indonesians opened crisis kitchens of their own to feed people down on their luck. The Banjar, a village arm of government in Bali, also snapped into action, delivering food parcels to needy households in their respective cantons.
But mass unemployment can’t be solved with free meals. People still had rent and bills, so some saw no option but to steal. By late April, an unusually high number of burglaries were being reported on the island.
In one case, a British woman was chased into a dead-end street by a transvestite who mugged and groped her before she made her escape. Another female tourist was dragged along the ground and shredded the skin of her elbows and knees after two thieves on a scooter snatched her handbag. Most culprits are never caught but on one occasion the cops nabbed some dude with hundreds of cartons of stolen cigarettes. “He used to be a villa caretaker, but he has been furloughed for a while,” East Denpasar Police Kompol Nyoman Karang Adiputra said. “He is not currently working and has no income. That is where he got the idea to commit a robbery.”
The situation went from bad to worse after the government ordered the early release of 30,000 prisoners to avoid mass COVID-19 infections in overcrowded prisons. But many of those who were released didn’t waste any time rescinding.
On Sulawesi Island, a man who’d released into his community broke into four of his neighbours’ houses and stole phones and cash. In the city of Solo, an ex-con was pulled over while riding a stolen motorbike. And in Bali, where more than 700 inmates were released, two men were caught with a bag of dope as big as Schapelle Corby’s bodyboard only hours after they were released and are now facing potential death penalties.
I took extra precautions, locking every door in the house whenever I went out and storing valuables in a safe. But it made no difference. One day in early May, I returned home from the shops to find the front door jimmied open. I rushed to my room and screamed, for my safe was gone – and with it $6,000 worth of camera equipment. They had also taken my hard drives containing 20 years of photographs and memories, along with my passport, credit card, driver’s license and the rego papers for my motorbike.
I called my landlord, who came over straight away. He found my safe in the back of the garden, but it had been cut clean in half by an oxy torch or something. In an act of supposed mercy, the thieves had left my passport on the ground. But it had been soiled with mud and left unusable.
The burglars were obviously a professional crew who had staked out my villa for days or possibly weeks. But when the police came by they did not take fingerprints, interview me or any of the neighbours. They were too busy eating doughnuts or whatnot.
My cameras were not just for taking holiday snaps. They were my working tools and without them, I was dead in the water. I fell into a deep spiral of depression and didn’t speak to anyone for days, cursing myself for not seeing the burglars coming. Nothing else in the house had been touched; my safe was not safe, it was an advertisement for free shit. I would have been better off leaving my camera gear in the bin.
THE HEAT THEORY
If there’s one way to take your mind of things, it’s through work, so I dived into mine with gusto. With the help of my diligent fixer Lala, I scored interviews with senior members of Indonesia’s COVID-19 Task Force. I covered a prison riot on Sulawesi Island that took place after rumours spread a guard had been infected. I wrote about the collapse of the real estate market in Bali, and the food kitchens feeding the unemployed. And I poured my heart and soul into solving the mystery behind Bali’s apparent miraculous immunity to COVID-19 in the absence of a lockdown.
All but one of the tourist areas in Bali had become ghost towns and roadblocks had been set up across the island to prevent outsiders from visiting villages. But in the capital, Denpasar, it was business as usual. Traffic pulsed in every direction and the city’s wet markets bustled with thousands of people in the mornings and late afternoons. Social-distancing policies were being ignored on a wholesale level, some don’t-give-a-fuck expats were even holding parties in private villas, yet only 200 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed on the island.
Testing for the virus was still in its infancy, which may have explained why so few cases had been reported. I also heard allegations from two independent sources that some health officials in Bali have deliberately botched test results.
And while data can be suppressed, large numbers of people becoming ill or dying on an island the size of Bali cannot. I visited the largest crematorium and cemetery on the island and spoke with gravediggers, all of whom said they were no busier than usual. I went back to the main hospital and again it was quiet, ditto at every other hospital I visited on the island.
After 12 days of painstaking groundwork, I presented the findings to three of Indonesia’s leading experts on contagious disease and asked them to tell me what the fuck was going on. Was this proof of a miracle?
All three experts said the same thing: until more testing was done it was not impossible to know if what I was seeing was real or just an artefact of under-reporting. But they also had shared some very interesting theories.
“Either there is no transmission in Bali, or the transmission is silent because people are getting infected but most of them are asymptomatic,” said Dr Hadisoemarto.
“Does it have anything to do with genetics or the lifestyle in Bali?”
Dr Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist who’s helped Indonesia’s Ministry of Health design its pandemic management strategy for 20 years, also said the low COVID-19 mortality rate could be attributed to an asymptomatic outbreak. “We know 80 percent of all cases around the world are asymptomatic because they are related to young adults. I believe that’s taking place in Bali. Most cases are asymptomatic because of the young demographic,” he said.
Bali’s most senior virologist, Professor Gusti Ngurah Mahardika, also said the island’s demographics was playing a factor. But he shared a belief that COVID-19 does not transmit as effectively in tropical climates like Bali’s: “I have published a paper that argues COVID-19 might be sensitive to heat and humidity as has been reported with MERS and SARS.”
But what about the Brazilian city of Manaus in the Amazon, where meteorological and demographical conditions are also almost identical to those in Bali? Manaus’ Mayor Virgilio Neto had described the situation there as a “horror movie” with bodies piling up in refrigerated trucks and mass graves being dug outside cemeteries.
At first, Mahardika was puzzled by what was happening from Manaus. But an hour later he called me and said he’d figured it out. “There’s only one variable that remains – culture,” he said. “Brazilians love to party. Balinese do not. They also do a lot of kissing. Balinese do not.”
“THE SITUATION WENT FROM BAD TO WORSE AFTER THE GOVERNMENT ORDERED THE EARLY RELEASE OF 30,000 PRISONERS TO AVOID MASS COVID-19 INFECTIONS IN OVERCROWDED PRISONS.”
MADE IN CHINA
I spent about 100 hours on the investigation and many hours more convincing my editors to run the story, ending with all three experts admitting nobody could explain why Bali had been spared a deadly outbreak.
But the night before the story was scheduled to run, more than 400 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in a single village in east Bali. A local man who’d been working on a cruise ship and was supposed to remain in quarantine had fucked off home and infected his entire family with the killer virus. His family, in turn, infected the whole village, punching a hole the size of Mount Agung Volcano into my story.
I drafted an email to my editors, telling them to axe the story. Bali’s wasn’t immune to the virus after all. I was about to hit send when Professor Gusti Ngurah Mahardika sent me a text explaining the test results had been nullified after more than 100 of the villagers who had originally tested positive were tested again and the results were all negative.
These tests, the professor explained, had not been carried out with nasopharyngeal swabs but with rapid test kits from China that were proving less than reliable.
The exact same shit had happened in Spain where the government cancelled an order for 640,000 rapid test kits from China after learning the kits delivered false negatives. Australia has seized 800,000 masks made in China that were found to be counterfeit or faulty. Holland has also recalled 600,000 faulty Chinese face masks that had already been distributed to front-line medical teams.
I deleted the email I was about to send and wrote another one asking my editor to include my name on this story. Investigative journalism is a public service, not a crime, and I was sick of living in fear of being arrested for doing my bloody job.
‘The gambit paid off. “‘No miracle’: What explains Bali’s low coronavirus cases?” was read by millions. Lala and I even received messages from members of the Indonesian government commending Lala and me for our diligence.
A month has passed, and Bali is still outbreak-free. But now that the domestic travel ban in Indonesia has been lifted, thousands of Indonesians are flying into Bali every day for shelter on the miracle island. The government says not to worry because all arriving passengers and commuters are being screened for COVID-19 on arrival with rapid test kits.
I just hope they’re not made in China.
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