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24 Oct 2020 16:12
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  •   Home > News > International

    Bali's coronavirus outbreak was so under control, they welcomed tourists. Now cases are exploding

    Bali believed it could reclaim its status as the region's favourite holiday destination with rapid antibody tests for arriving tourists. But a flaw in the system means COVID-19 deaths are on the rise, and one crematorium is struggling to keep up with the


    Bebalang village is best known to tourists as a stop on Bali's Eat, Pray, Love tour for fans of Elizabeth Gilbert's famous memoir.

    But now this small village at Bangli, north-east of Ubud, is the final destination for scores of victims dying from suspected COVID-19.

    As the spread of coronavirus accelerates across Bali, workers at the Bebalang crematorium say they are struggling to keep up with demand.

    It is one of the few crematoriums on the island designated to deal with the bodies of people who died with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19.

    The official COVID-19 death toll on the resort island is about 241, but Indonesia's rate of testing is among the lowest in the world.

    Before the pandemic, the Sagraha Mandra Kantha Santhi facility would cremate roughly one body a day.

    "Lately we have about eight to 10 bodies a day, but one time we had 18 bodies," said the head of the facility, I. Nyoman Karsana.

    Typically, coffins are lined up in an area surrounded by tropical forest.

    A Hindu priest offers final prayers and staff in full protective gear lay out offerings of flowers or food to help the dead on their journey to eternity.

    The cremation itself is done outdoors and in full public view, with small family groups allowed to watch from nearby.

    It is a grim turn of events for an island that appeared to have coronavirus under control — even as it raged in other parts of the archipelago.

    Bali took a risk by opening up

    Bali now has one of the fastest-rising death rates from coronavirus in Indonesia, since the provincial government reopened the island to domestic tourism.

    Deaths from COVID-19 in Bali have risen five-fold since July 31 and infection rates have more than doubled. Eight of Bali's nine regencies are now classified as high-risk "red zones".

    The lack of testing for coronavirus makes it impossible to know the true rate of infection, according to local epidemiologist Dr I Gusti Ngurah Kade Mahardika.

    "The number of daily tests is very low," he said.

    "My data show there are only 600 to 700 people tested each day, so we can never know what the real situation is."

    Up to 4,000 tourists have arrived in Bali every day since July 31, which has fuelled the spread of the virus, according to Dr Mahardika.

    "Bali's reopening has caused a public euphoria for local residents. They think Bali is open now so they're free to do anything and they flock to tourist destinations," he said.

    Bali is back to being crowded

    Beaches, restaurants and other popular areas have been crammed with people, both locals and tourists.

    Visitors to the island are required to produce a health certificate on arrival proving they are not currently positive for SARS-CoV-2.

    But the low-cost rapid antibody test kits that are being used to screen domestic visitors can be inaccurate, allowing people with the virus to slip through.

    "I've said this so many times already. A lockdown is needed," Dr Mahardika said.

    "All the indicators at the time showed the reopening of tourism in Bali should not have been allowed. But they did."

    Most tourists arriving in Bali are from neighbouring Java, where coronavirus infection rates and deaths are Indonesia's highest.

    The number of cases in the national capital Jakarta, in western Java, is now skyrocketing and hospitals and cemeteries are running out of space.

    Jakarta residents were ordered into a new lockdown earlier this month, but not before many people flew out for a holiday in Bali.

    Bali's tourism industry fears what happens next

    Bali's provincial government has considered multiple measures to bring the rapidly rising death rate down and curb the flow of infections.

    It has pledged to increase the island's limited hospital capacity and has announced new measures to restrict crowd numbers at tourist sites, religious ceremonies and public facilities such as markets.

    It has also moved to limit the number of people working in offices to 25 per cent.

    So far, it is not planning to shut tourism altogether.

    Many small business owners fear the influx of coronavirus, but also depend on the tourism industry for income.

    "I am scared of COVID-19, but if I don't work, how can we eat if we stay home all the time without receiving aid?" asked Dewi Suryanti, who sells corn on the cob from a street stall at Sanur.

    Restaurants and hotels in Bali, especially in tourist areas, must adhere to strict protocols to try to slow the spread of coronavirus.

    Staff must wear masks and take temperature checks of all guests before they enter.

    Most restaurants restrict numbers to 50 per cent of their capacity.

    But many venues have closed down since the pandemic hit Bali early this year, and some are still struggling to reopen.

    "If the government decides to close our source of income again from domestic tourism, how will we survive?" said restaurant manager Ni Ketut Sasya Jolya Monic.

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved


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