The coffee tree shaded road from the ridge near Dausa drops down steeply through the aroma of cloves and coffee. A panorama of Buleleng’s eastern shores is spread out below, brilliant in the morning sunshine. Other smells waft past but I’m not sure what they are and the view is stunning, but I don’t stop – my mind is on my destination.

I’m grateful that the road is much better maintained than it was the last time I came down here years ago, and it’s a very pleasant ride. As the bike hums along mostly in 2ndgear (I don’t feel like having brake failure on this gradient), I pass by guard post after guard post at the entrances to hamlets (“banjars”) along the way. Most are simply blocked with local traditional (“pecalang”) security armed with an assortment of sprayers sitting, bored and chatting on the platforms of the posts – not much social distancing. Quite a few have their masks only half on – kind of like wearing underpants but, forgive me,  with your genitalia hanging out. Others just have signs posted giving ‘visiting hours’.

Finally as I wind down to sea-level, I come to the 3 way intersection on the northeastern coastal highway Jl Singaraja –Amlapura that marks the beginning of Bondalem village. It’s instantly clear where I am: there are two very busy check points on either side of the road I emerge from. Lots of police and pecalang are there in a show of force. Bondalem is after all the latest epicentre of the covid-19 contagion: 22 people have been diagnosed positive here just recently. I am stopped politely, and so present my credentials to the cops. It’s basically a letter of passage  from BPBD (The government Provincial Disaster Mitigation Body) clarifying that I’m doing observation work as part of the Kopernik coordinated non-governmental group working asa supplementary team with the approval and support of Bali’s Covid-19 Taskforce.

We chat briefly and they tell me that the centre of the village is where there will be a lot of cars. I get there, and there sure are a lot of cars, and police, and military, and reporters. You could say it was a crowd, with not that much social distancing. The governor has come to town.  Now I undertsand why there were so many police and pecalang back at the check point. As well as a couple of truck loads of instant noodles (the Agung ‘nutrition’ scenario all over again) and sacks of rice. And a crowd of reporters and onlookers, and not much social distancing again. The poor MC kept begging people to back away, but what to do.

After weeks in self quarantine, followed by limited masked, social distancing sorties, I’m uncomfortable around this crowd hovering around the governor. What’s more, his speech was pretty standard. The burning sun made the late morning heat unbearable: I think of the theory that heat stops the virus. Well the case of this new epicenter of contagion in Bondalem has answered that for me. I feel very little need to hang out, and after 10 minutes I’m out of there.

Above: check point at Bondalem – note lack of gloves. Below: the governor gives a speech in Bondalem.

As I leave, I am thinking of the discussions with public health and other experts, who have had experience dealing with epidemics, around the fact that figures like the 22 confirmed infected are pretty much outdated by the time they are confirmed by PCR swab testing. So now I (photographer and bike enthusiast!), start my own amateurish calculations based on an epidemiological assumption that a novel corona virus (2019-nCov) infected person in an uncontrolled situation can (on average) infect at least 2-3 people in the first 7 days. Just say an average Balinese person’s close social circle (people they hang out with on a regular basis for more than an hour or two at a time) would be about 15 – 20 people – I figure roughly that Bondalem by now could be on its fourth stage of spreading. I know this is unscientific but it seems somewhat logical. So if that was the case, well… do the maths.

Long story short, when I reached security post at the end of Bondalem I get the pecalang to spray my entire bike and me. It all dries in about 3 minutes in the heat, and I ride off to go through Sudaji up in the hills of north Bali, and the back road through the mountains to Bedugul. Sudaji is as crowded and dense as it ever was. These mountain villages in Buleleng tend to be all like this  due to the steep terrain: people aren’t as willing to give up valuable farming land to build a house on. And Sudaji’s rice is famous all around Bali. But when I look at the density and proximity of the houses I worry that if there is an outbreak of the virus here it will have a pretty high contagion factor.

Over the last few days Sudaji has been in the news.  A mass cremation involving three different clans had been planned for months here, and my trusted local sources tell me that they weren’t willing to call it off after all the preparations and expenditure. In the end one of clans bowed out – they didn’t want to downsize their cremation. The other two decided to go ahead, which prompted a visit from local authorities and the BPBD. Three visits in fact. On the second one the BPBD even worked out a fixed procedure by which they could reduce the number of participants to government guideline levels. One of the two ignored it, and by all accounts the number of people attending was pretty big. The authorities arrested the head of the committee.

But it didn’t end there – apparently that night a brawl broke out between supporters of the clan and those who sided with the authorities. What we are seeing is just one area of social conflict that is now brewing in this time of corona. Equally if not more potent is the potential for economic conflict.

above: aerial view of Sudaji – farming land  for the famous Sudaji rice on otherwise steep terrain is valuable here, village households tend to cluster tightly together.

above and below: a kindergarten converted into a quarantine facility in Sawan near Sudaji, and a list of now released covid-19 suspected carriers who were held there.

A couple of days later our coalition gets news of people starving in the Abang district, close to Amed. I try raising my friend and Mt Agung volunteer colleague Komang Bajing who lives in the area but he isn’t picking up the phone. I decide to go and see for myself. So at dawn I set out, full tilt up the by-pass to Karangasem, bugs committing mass suicide on my visor and windshield. An hour and a half later I turn off the highway at Culik. The main road through Amed and Jemuluk is wall to wall hotels and guest houses. With the exception of one or two, all are closed. I squeeze by a lumbering truck puffing up the hilly roads on the way.

I stop for a minute at Lean beach to check out the fishing scene, obviously there’s plenty of fish even if there aren’t any tourists. The truck catches up with me and stops at a local warung. They start unloading rice, as it turns out it is government food aid in packets of 10 and 25 kilos. Each warung that has a BRI bank account serves as the local repository.

Unloading government rice donations in Lean Beach

Komang is not home (or rather has gone home to his village). Location pin it is. The road to Br Banyuning is asphalted but it’s tiny, with some killer sudden deep dips. I come across a group of people sitting outside a nondescript shop. Nobody has masks on. In fact I’ve barely seen a mask since I turned off the highway at Culik, through Amed and Jemuluk. I start chatting with them, and one guy starts up. He’s one of those fiery guys who explains the world according to him. There’s one in every crowd.  I ask if any one is going hungry here, and he starts on about only having two meals a day. I mention the rice truck, and he is adamant that they won’t be getting anything. I’m not going to argue but I’m quite clear that two meals a day is not starvation by any measure. I ask them why they are not wearing masks, and they say they only wear them when they “go out” meaning leave the village. The fire brand then blurts out “they are too expensive”. So I pull out a bunch of masks that I have and give them one each. I count out 10 masks. They are sitting by the road close together, and will only wear the masks when they “go out”. Hmmm. Social distancing really isn’t a thing in Bali.  From shops, to food stalls, to this group, it’s obvious that masks and physical distancing feel alien to the Balinese.

Above and Below: social distancing is not a “thing” yet. Both photos were taken close Abuan village during the quarantine.

Half an hour later I’m sitting in the Bunutan village head’s office. A nice, bright young man in a dimly lit office with the aircon struggling. I keep my mask on, so does he. He explains that indeed they don’t distribute government rice to everyone, they try to target the elderly and those who are incapacitated. Also there is a local NGO, Team Action Amed (I think that’s what he said, and he thinks that’s what they are called) who distribute basic staples. I mention the fire brand guy to him, and he smiles wryly. “I often only eat twice a day coz I am too busy. Sometimes I don’t have energy to organize a proper dinner so I just have rice and an egg. But some of these people have had it good with tourism, and now they don’t have any cash to throw around so they are mad.”.

As I leave I make a note to myself to discuss with the BPBD and my public health friends the idea of setting up some basic standards for food shortages – two meals a day won’t make the starvation category. And I realize that people in the countryside have access to  fields and other food sources  –  urban and suburban areas would be where real starvation would be more likely. In fact a couple of local friends down in Denpasar have already solicited funds from me and others for rice distribution. There are plenty of non-resident migrant workers who are not currently eligible for government handouts because they don’t have local ids.

I head back, and cut up through Bebandem from the other end of Abang. Eventually, after a quick stop to wolf down a minimalist picnic of sandwich and some tea (another downside of this covid thing is I now pass up my favourite food stalls), I come out in Rendang. The sand quarries are as busy as ever, trucks all over the road as usual. I’m pretty sure the truckers don’t bring picnics, so they must eat along the road, interacting with food stall owners…

I drop down into the short cut to Bangli, then on to the next shortcut to Tampaksiring. Except when I come to Susut I see the quarantine on the road to Abuan has been lifted. Aha. I can’t resist – I take a sharp left. (see lead picture).

It’s quiet but not dead. As I come through northern end of the village life seems to be normal. I catch the local chief of police washing his hands at a public tap (no mask) and ask him when the quarantine was lifted – “Today is the first day!” I congratulate him and move on. Next stop is Banjar Serokadan, the main ‘epicentre’ of the 24 positive cases resulting from local transmission from a returning cruise ship worker, or PMI.  I say “from ‘a’ PMI” with some reservation: there are around 150 returning PMI in this village alone out of the nearly 12000 Bali wide (so far). But the PMI’s are an easy target, they are easy to locate as they all had to register and be tested – what worries me is the undetected local transmissions.

Speaking of detection, this is the area where 443 rapid  tests all came out false positive, and when 380 something were then swab tested, the PCR results came back with only one positive. The remaing 60 odd people went into hiding and refused to be swabbed. I wonder what is happening with them. But what I do find in Serokadan is a gathering of all the local “pecalang” who are proudly holding certificates of excellent service from the Bangli Regency military commander. (see pic below)

The rapid tests that were used in Abuan were suspect, and the task force is no longer using the VivaDiag brand. Don’t get me started on the whole testing fiasco and the minimalist data. And while you’re at it don’t send me any more silly articles about how Bali is immune, all because of the Desa Adat (local traditional custom organizations) efforts.

Basically the data is minimal because testing has been minimal, and until recently tracing too. There have apparently been some interdepartmental issues with the data flow; for that matter people who have close dealings with the health department tend to be skeptical of their data. All of which doesn’t help reflect the real current state of things.

Take for example the offical death toll of 4 over the last couple of month. Indonesian law doesn’t require a coroners report (visum) for all deaths. Though by Indonesian law all deaths must be recorded, and death certificates issued, sources on the ground including local officials and Balinese friends of mine  admit that in villages this is often not done, so it isn’t entered into the data base.

In reality families here tend to only obtain death certificates for direct legal requirements such as inheritance and so forth. As ‘adat’ (traditional codes) law is a major force in Balinese villages, for many locals it takes precedence in most aspects of their lives. All deaths are reported to the Bendesa Adat (local village adat chief) perforce because it is the adat institution which gives permission for burials and cremations.  By contrast in Jakarta where adat is not the norm, one needs to apply for a government permit for burials, so the stats are automatically registered.

EDIT –  I originally left this paragraph out in the interest of keeping it shorter but in hindsight I think it remiss not to include it: What perhaps many non- Balinese don’t realize is that majority of villagers’ households in villages proper are not built on privately owned land but collective village land that has been allocated by adat to their clans and families. These lots are called “karang desa”. They have unlimited usage rights (unless expelled from the village) but cannot sell, bequeath to a non- family member or mortgage the land. This cuts out a great deal of the normal inheritance process as we know it, with the exception of privately owned property outside of karangdesa.

A couple of simple illustrations of how much more powerful adat law is in the villages of Bali: helmets are required by law for all motorcycle riders. How many people (including foreigners!!) do you see in the space of half an hour not wearing helmets on the road? On the other hand how many people in a village do you see not obeying adat decrees like not wearing proper attire to go into temples? Take taxes – all Indonesian citizens are required to pay income tax. The majority, including in Bali, don’t. But Balinese villagers wouldn’t dare to not pay their regular temple tithes and other adat stipulated fees.

When I get home I call Pak Made Rentin of BPBD and also Dr Januraga to discuss the idea of creating a proper handbook for the adat officials so we can establish proper and uniform protocols. Pak Made is very supportive, and Dr Januraga is on it straight away.  I feel a little guilty about giving him more work but he is happy to do it because it makes sense to him.

Once again I head out, this time over the mountains to Seririt in Buleleng to check on the most recent news about a confirmed positive case in that town. Riding around town, I see everyone seems to be relaxed, the usual 50% either not wearing masks or not wearing them properly. The flower vendors are busy, and fish vendors are setting up on the street just after the rain abates. Finally I locate the kelurahan (village level) office – Seririt is made of several kelurahan.  I find a couple of officials there and ask about the positive confirmed case. They inform me that the case wasn’t actually in this village but in another part of the Seririt district. So I decide I should go to the Camat (district) office. But then they tell me it’s closed – the positive case is a member of the district covid-19 task force, and that 14 of his colleagues from the office are in quarantine waiting for their PCR test results! I sit back down with a bit of a thump. It’s easy to track down returning migrant workers but once local transmission has started in an area it’s a much bigger job to trace all the contacts!

Now a source of trepidation is the resumption of flights from Jakarta, Indonesia’s hotspot, to Bali. The government has stipulated certificates of health and other special documents. A few days ago front pages and news sites were dominated by pictures of people crammed together in queues at the Jakarta airport, backed up waiting for overwhelmed officials to check all the documents. Outside there were touts selling fake certificates, and at least one national online shopping portal unwittingly carried a brazen add for fake certificates. To be sure task force officials came down heavily on the vendors that very day, but damage had already been done.

Above – the non-social distancing queue at Jakarta airport a few days ago (unattributed, social media. Below an online ad for fake certificates 

Meanwhile the President has continued to praise Bali as the best performing province with regards to handling covid-19. Which is really unfair to C Java governor Ganjar for example, who is often out there on the ground checking and making sure thigns are really done properly. But Jakarta still operates on the premise that Bali is Indonesia’s economical billboard, and must be made to work first. It makes me a bit nervous as I know there is a very big push to get tourism jump started. I do understand the need to for the economy to get going again, but basing it on unsubstantiated assumptions is scary.

Meanwhile, the mayor of Denpasar Ida Bagus Rai Mantra has decided to impose a slightly modified lockdown – interesting timing. Checkpoints were setup to check required documents (identity cards, employement letters, certificates of health and so on) – they ended up being bottle necks with motorcycle riders stuck in in queues close together, handing documents over with bare hands to officials, who handed them back after checking. Let’s just call it a petri dish.  Ironically within Denpasar social distancing was apparently as slack as ever.

The line at a check point into Denpasar on the first day  (photo Bali Express)

The balance between public health and the economy is a going to be a very tricky thing to achieve.  Finance minister Sri Mulyani considers the official government scenario of 2,3% growth by the end of the year optimistic. Her worst case scenario puts growth at 0,4%, and she points out that if that happens it will drive almost 5 million more people into poverty, with 5,2 million unemployed.

Back to assumptions and data. A couple of days ago Pak Bernadus Wisnu Widjaja, deputy head of prevention and emergency preparedness at the BNPB  (Indonesia’s national body for emergency response) asked me on the phone about what I was seeing on the ground. He also feels puzzled about the data in Bali, but was not pointing any fingers, though still keen to find out more about the data. “Whatever the case may be, we can’t dwell on what’s past, we need to focus on now and the future”. He tells me that they have already distributed one million PCR test kits to task forces around Indonesia, and another eight hundred thousand are in the pipeline. We shall see  what that brings.

On the way home from Seririt I head thru Banyuatis. In all the villages,  Mom and Pop stores are open, people are shopping (again half of them either not wearing masks or not wearing them properly), and social distancing is sketchy. Clearly local businesses are surviving somehow, and that’s important. But once I get into the areas where tourist businesses dominate it’s dead. We are learning the dangers of being dependent on a single industry the hard way.

Text and photos ©Rio Helmi except where otherwise stated.


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