Rio Helmi takes stock -as Bali hurtles towards a rude encounter with the virus that is taking the world by the, uh, sensitive parts.


This could well be the beginnings of cabin fever. Here we are again, another disaster looming, and here I am again riffing off (or is it ripping off?) another well-known book title after my “News From Under the Volcano” series. To be honest cabin fever is a bit exaggerated, so far I have managed to sneak out on the bike for a couple of hours early in the morning and hit the quieter backcountry roads to check out what’s happening. And I have to keep an eye on the farm, so I do quick runs up there. But yes I do it as carefully as possible, and have given up little pleasures like hanging out at warungs chatting to locals, going into markets and ceremonies etc.. And when I shop I give the next customer at the check out about 2 carts worth of distance.

It’s all a long way from the streets of Denpasar which are relatively quieter but still carry plenty of traffic, and even further from the airport which is quieter too. But the damage has been done. That started happening already a few months ago, even before we repatriated the 280 plus Indonesian students in Wuhan, and then finally got them home and put them into quarantine. Thousands of tourists, including some from Hubei province, holidayed here. But no one was really testing back then. Even the thermometer wielders at the airport were reportedly haphazard. “Too expensive to test” some in the government cried,” just quarantine them” then budgeted 72 billion Rupiahs for social influencers to tell everyone Indonesia was ok. And as you all know, after two weeks the students were released untested and sent home, around about the time medical reports were coming out of China indicating that the incubation period could be as long as 3-4 weeks. Hmm.

Fast forward, still on the subject of arrivals, 22 thousand Balinese  have been working overseas on cruise ships, spas and the like. They are now out of a job and are being repatriated, pretty much straight to Bali, in stages. A vital economic support of many families, they are mostly welcomed home with open arms. Open arms that then hug them. Technically, according to the President’s current instructions, they must undergo two weeks self-quarantine. Though I haven’t done any kind of thorough study, a couple of first hand stories I’ve heard in a “keep-your-distance” conversations (gas stations, suppliers) make it clear that this isn’t always happening. At least not in the sense of quarantine as the rest of the world might understand it. Boom.

The market in Lod Tunduh

I will probably get shot for saying this, but it really feels like most villagers (and many urbanites) in Bali really aren’t getting the message about how devastating this virus will be if they don’t change their behaviour . People are gathered together preparing for pre-Nyepi ceremonies (Tawur Agung etc), temple odalans, popular local  warung food stalls are crammed full of people, markets are still jostling. Some Balinese ‘tsk-tsk’ about the now cancelled Islamic mega prayer meeting in Gowa, Sulawesi (cancelled after thousands of participants already arrived) and the huge mass to install the new Bishop in Ruteng, Flores that was going to be attended by the Minister for Communication and Information (a childhood friend of the Bishop’s, he cancelled last minute after intense pressure). In the end the Mass went ahead with “only” 1500 on the 19thof March. But the Balinese, while conceding to no Ogoh-ogoh parades this year, are still getting together to ngayah (do community work for ceremonies, temples etc). No question of a 2-3 meter distancing. And as I write this a mobile traffic police unit processing driver’s licenses is parked in the Monkey Forest in Ubud. They are calling for the public to come and avail themselves of this mobile service. Excuse me, but what the…

ABOVE: the community of Br Sala, Pejeng came together to prepare for a pre Nyepi ceremony (Saturday 21 March). BELOW: making saté for an temple festival in Silungan  (Friday 2oth March).

Some expats are not much better. There was a lot of disappointment in a certain sector of the expat population when Bali Spirit Festival made the call to cancel (or delay) this year’s get together. After a recent indoor concert at Paradiso with hundreds in attendance, there was a bad moment when one of the revelers was thought to be infected – fortunately the news is that she was cleared after testing. Hopefully no asymptomatic carriers were there.

I’m going to be honest here – as late as two or three weeks ago I had a meeting at the Hyatt Hotel in Sanur (but I was temperature screened), and also a meeting at Udayana University (no thermometer guns there) in Denpasar with a professor specializing in social economics during which a couple of other professors (one in medicine) came by and were introduced and we all shook hands. Sure, hand sanitizer but still… and the student canteen…The good news is that all universities and schools have been shutdown for a couple of weeks.

Let’s step away from the closeness of Bali for a minute. To all the “oh-it’s-far-less-deadly-than..” infographic waving advocates out there on the internet, please contemplate the following figures. Cases of confirmed coronavirus, globally (outside of China obviously): 19th of January – 100 cases, 19th of February – 76,000 cases, 19th of March – 248,000 cases.  Coronavirus deaths, globally (again outside of China) January, 22nd– 17, February, 20th– 2,247, March, 20th– 11,153. Are we getting the picture?

This is growing faster than anything that (for the moment) tops those “far deadlier” infographics. And for all of you who failed algebra (I did), this eventually could add up to more actual deaths in the same period of time, regardless of how many percent it is. Pull your socks up people. That 2% fatality rate that some young people spout (as if there were no young people in that percentile) is misleading when you see how exponentially fast this thing has already spread throughout the world. Transmission rates within communities and travelers are phenomenal.

Bearing in mind the attitude of most people in Bali today, whether they are Balinese villagers, urban dwellers, garden variety tourists, or flexible vegan Ubud expats, it’s like being on a high speed train about to come around the bend to find the tracks are bent out of shape. We need to slow this train down.

A few days ago President Jokowi finally declared a national emergency(which releases funding) and laid down several restrictions on travel and guidlines for quarantine, as well as calling for massive rapid testing. But he refused any kind of lockdown beyond social distancing. And more subtly, he left loopholes for local governments to adjust regulations according to their respective situations “as we are a nation of islands”. Perhaps a nation of loopholes. To date we are the country with the highest fatality rate (25) in Southeast Asia. But at least it’s a step forward, a little late though. It’s cruel to say this, but we blew our window to contain this better in January and even early February.

Coming back to testing: Sanglah hospital in Denpasar has opened a clinic dedicated to this, open everyday between 8:00 am and 4:00pm. Conditions apply: they are testing people who are symptomatic, who have been traveling outside Bali lately, and who have had contact with confirmed postive cases. The samples are sent to Jakarta to an official lab there. It is NOT a rapid testing unit despite what the caption done by Bali Channel says below. A pinch of salt: an MD who knows Sanglah well (and whose name shall not be mentioned here) says that the facilities aren’t really ready, and that staff haven’t received proper protective suits – “This is a suicide mission”.

If you’ve clicked on the ‘national emergency’ link above you will see several of the experts comments on the shortcomings of Jokowi’s program. To add to that, I was reading that a key ingredient of Singapore’s and Taiwan’s containment success so far has been aggressive tracing. Of the three deaths from corona virus in Bali so far, tracing has turned up 199 people who are now being checked. Given the suspiciously low statistics so far – okay it’s true one can only publish confirmed cases – but how is our tracing really going to work? And especially in the light of the 22,000 returning workers who might or might not self-quarantine properly?

I’m not going to pretend that all of this is not stress making. My inner hypochondriac is nagging me, and perhaps psychosomatic disorders will kill me first. I’ll admit I’m a tad a-jangle.  So when during a recent meeting (relax, it was online) with a couple of my former colleagues on the Mt Agung Relief crew, Ewa Wojkowska of Kopernik and Petra Schneider of IDEP, Petra suggested in all earnestness that I do an online daily meditation session as a service for the public I almost sputter-splattered the screen with my coffee. But on second thoughts, it might do me some good. Have to figure out what the best platform would be – Skype? WhatsApp? Everyone has those apps. Or Zoom? I’m not good at tech. Or should I avoid hubris and not do it?  Open to suggestions in the comments box below (yes it’s moderated).

From that meeting we spun up the idea of doing a social media campaign in Balinese and Indonesian. I got pressed into service for the Balinese part, and came up with a slogan. It was catchy (if I may say so) and played on Jokowi’s slogan of “work at home, study at home, pray at home”. A visiting branding person from the UK consulted and a couple of graphic people whipped it up. We put it on our phones and hey presto. Then I sent it to linguist Professor Nala at Udayana University to see if we could the governor’s wife to support the campaign. And of course that’s when the egg hit my face: I had mispelled the Balinese part of it. Quick as a flash the graphic people fixed it (see lead picture), but some of us had posted already. The most embarassing thing is that I’m officially on the board of (again pressed into it, by the tireless Alissa Stern), and Professor Nala is the director.

But soon there are going to other pressing problems as well. What will farmers do when a big slice of the market for their produce simply shuts down? Already many restaurants have drastically reduced or stopped their pruchasing. Staff will be let go. What will laborers who depend on their daily wages do? It’s not easy and I’m not going to pretend I have viable answers.

Meanwhile my phone buzzes through a full battery charge in 5 hours as endless messages from ‘experts’ get whatsapped to me. Please if you are going to whatsapp stuff around, first of all check that it came from a reliable source, run it through Snopes if you’re not sure, and attribute the source before posting. I still don’t know where that voice recording of a woman passing on advice from some clinic in Spain originally came from. Some of it made me realize that perhaps I need to be more stringent. But… though the advice seems to makes sense (shower and change immediately when you get in if you go out, wash your hands, drink warm drinks and gargle to disinfect your throat regularly etc etc), I still am not going to repost it on social media as trustworthy advice unless I know who said it and under what circumstances. There’s advice about covid-19 under every virtual cobblestone on the internet, let’s sort it out by verifying. Be smart, be safe.

EDIT: Previously we received in correct information that the Sanglah unit is a rapid testing unit,  this was incorrect. It is a testing unit where they take samples and send it to a lab in Jakarta. Apologies for the misunderstaning.

text and photos ©Rio Helmi with the exception of the social media post about the clinic.


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