Bali: Social distancing measures not enforced

Jakarta – The Indonesian resort island of Bali has declined to introduce strict measures to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, despite several other regions of the country doing so, raising fears it could rapidly spread and cause far more infections and deaths.

The capital Jakarta was the first to mandate large-scale social restrictions, known by the acronym PSBB, which include compulsory social distancing, the use of face masks in public, limited public transport, the closure of public areas, office buildings, shopping malls, houses of worship and schools. Several other regions have also implemented PSBB restrictions.

But Bali Governor I Wayan Koster said the provincial island still had “a long way to go” before following suit. While his government has declared a state of emergency, closed schools and public beaches, social distancing measures are merely encouraged and not enforced.

Some restaurants and stores remain open, and one group of expatriates recently threw a large birthday party in the beach town of Canggu, earning the ire of Balinese residents on social media. The party’s organisers were later ordered to report to police for questioning.

“We continue to monitor every day and actually the local transmission is low in Bali, and so we are far from implementing PSBB,” Koster said. “I don’t think we should be talking about this yet, I can assure you there’s still a long way to go; don’t bring about a scary situation.”

According to the Bali provincial government’s Covid-19 website, as of Friday there had been 124 confirmed coronavirus cases and only two deaths in Bali.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo last month banned all foreign nationals from entering the country (with the exception of expatriate workers), which has brought Bali’s thriving tourism industry to a halt. The ban on Travellers from Australia and China, which provide the lion’s share of the island’s tourists, has been a particularly hard blow.

Achmad Yurianto, spokesman for the national Covid -19 task force, said the spread of the virus in Bali was caused by returning Balinese migrant workers and domestic Indonesian travellers visiting the island, rather than the local Balinese population.

But, he added: “It’s better to immediately [implement] PSBB.”

The president has declared the pandemic a national disaster, but has declined to order a nationwide lockdown, or issue a travel ban on Indonesian Muslims leaving urban areas to return to their hometowns and villages across the country at the end of Ramadan in late May.

Several million people typically make the pilgrimage, called mudik, to celebrate with family and friends, which analysts fear could exponentially increase the number of infections and deaths.

“It is difficult to defend Indonesia because it is quite obvious there is a lack of preparation. People are scared. The mood is dark and darker,” said Andreas Harsono, a researcher with Human Rights Watch Indonesia.

“It’s going to be very messy to impose a national lockdown while not banning mudik. It could be a messy power struggle between the local governments and elite, and the Jakarta government,” he said. “It’s a very diverse nation state. Geographically it will be a challenge to enforce a national lockdown.”

As of Friday, the Ministry of Health had confirmed 5,923 cases of Covid-19 in the country and 520 deaths. The pandemic had now affected nearly 200 districts and municipalities in all of Indonesia’s 34 provinces, Yurianto said.

There are concerns that there have been far more infections and deaths in Bali – as well as throughout Indonesia – than have been reported. Widodo’s government initially withheld information about the virus to avoid a public panic, and the country has carried out fewer than 40,000 tests nationwide since March.

Another issue is that each of the provinces that have been implementing large-scale social restrictions have been doing so independently and without coordination with neighbouring provinces or the national government.

“Not surprisingly, Indonesia’s Covid-19 pandemic policy was confusing, with regional leaders imposing their own versions of quarantines. The central government remains unwilling to impose a national lockdown, fearing the economic and political cost,” said Yohanes Sulaiman, a political analyst.

Indonesia may reach the peak in infections between early May and the beginning of June, with the number of nationwide cases estimated to reach at least 95,000, government Covid-19 task force adviser Wiku Adisasmito said on Thursday.

He said the government planned to ramp up testing to 10,000 a day in the coming weeks.

Back in Bali, however, residents continue to enjoy freedoms not available in other areas of the country.

“It’s nice. We still go out,” said one long-time British resident of the island. “Bali seems to be OK.” (Reuters)