Chasing Dollars in the Middle of the Plague

Chasing Dollars in the Middle of the Plague
Foto: Photo: Balebengong.id

Mesuryak.... hu! Mesuryak... hu!

Independen -- Calls and yells sounded from a microphone at Besakih temple following the Yadnya Pemahayu Jagat procession held by Bali Governor Wayan Koster and his officials. Attended by residents, the blessings ceremony coincided with the holy full moon ceremony of Purnama Kasa on July 5. Through the crowd, the governor, and others each brought sacred objects.

Governor Koster led the procession to kickstart an era of lax restrictions, which he called the New Life Order Era. One of the things that were emphasized in the new era was the opening of many public places while implementing health protocols such as maintaining distance, wearing masks, rapid tests for workers of entertainment and tourism sectors, etc. 

However, during the event itself, the governor seemed to fail in demonstrating his administration’s readiness in implementing the protocol. One of the handwashing facilities had no water, only some people wore masks thorough the ritual, and there was no minimum distancing of one meter.

Despite the scores of public information banners posted, the situation at the temple was just like before the pandemic. Even all the masks were taken off during a photo session with the officials.

Like other policies responding to disasters and other crises in Bali, the New Era Order during the Covid-19 pandemic seemed to prioritize the tourism industry. 

In his speech, Koster announced that July 9 would be the first stage in opening a limited number of locations and activities. In the second stage, starting July 31, a more comprehensive range of activities would be allowed, including the tourism sector—limited to domestic tourists only. The third stage would further expand tourism, including international tourists, begin on September 11. 

The impact of the pandemic was felt the most in southern Bali. Fancy restaurants and beach clubs around Seminyak, Kuta was still closed on Sunday (25/7). Only security guards were occasionally seen strolling around the beach as most of the access to the coast was open. 

Petitenget beach, one of the busiest in this area, was open. The beach was quite crowded with residents. Some were playing beach volleyball, jogging, sitting on the sand, and some were also seen holding a ritual at one of the prayer sites on the beach. Even though the beach was crowded, the roads—usually very congested, appeared deserted five months into the Covid-19 pandemic.

Twenty-year-old Kadek Bayu was visiting his former workplace—a famous beach club in Seminyak. “It’s not easy to come here again,” he joked. He had been dismissed when the pandemic hit. Even though he felt that he was on top of his game, Bayu did not think that the tourism business would ever return to its heyday after the pandemic. He was still undecided about what he would do next.

The growth of the tourism sector in Bali had been promising. According to the Central Statistics Agency (BPS), in the past nine years, the number of hotel rooms for rent have tripled. 

The number of star-rated hotel rooms was approximately 30,000 in 2000, then almost tripled to 80,200 in 2019. Meanwhile, non-star hotel rooms in 2019 were 72,000.

Until April 23, according to Bali’s Manpower and Human Resources Office, the number of employees and workers in Bali who were laid off or dismissed was 56,000 people, of which 1,315 people were laid off, while dismissed without pay was 55,409 people.

The actual number was believed to be higher—since the survey only covered the formal sector and would continue to grow. According to Bali’s Cooperatives and SME Office that kept tabs on the informal sector in Bali, the number of informal workers accounted for and collapsed due to the Covid-19 pandemic was 17,296 from an estimated 50,000 workers.

 

Tourism at Its Lowest Point

Since the end of January, Bali had started to feel the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic even though Indonesia only officially declared its first case in March. The first casualty of the virus in Bali was an elderly British citizen. The number of tourists continued to decline—even approaching zero, after the closure of commercial flights and land and sea transportation to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

The number of foreign tourist arrivals had dropped from 6.2 million people in 2019 to 1 million people by May. Divergent to the pandemic curve, visits started to drop dramatically in January. From more than 500,000 people to just 36 this May.

The dependence on the tourism sector had yet dealt a crushing blow to Bali. This time the impact was much prolonged and broader than the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005 and the Mount Agung eruption in 2017-2018. Compared to May 2019, the number of foreign tourists in Bali had decreased by almost 100 percent.

Ceremonies to accelerate the opening of the tourism industry continued. It was held in an elite resort area, the international convention center in the ITDC (Indonesia Tourism Development Corporation) Nusa Dua, Badung, on July 30. Because the next day, there would be a reception for domestic tourists. 

The event was titled The New Era of Bali Tourism Declaration. It was attended by the Coordinating Minister of Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, the Minister of Tourism and Creative Economy Wishnutama, Bali Governor, members of Commission XI of the House of Parliament (DPR), and other officials.

Head of Bank of Indonesia Representative Office in Bali Trisno Nugroho confirmed that Bali’s economic growth was at minus during the first two quarters of the year. However, he felt optimistic about digital-based economic transformation, one of which was using the QRIS application, and with kickstarting tourism, Bali’s economy would revive.

Governor Koster also promised to work hard to improve the region’s Covid-19 response. “Hopefully, the response has progressed very well,” Koster claimed. His success indicator was the high recovery rate, which would be 82 percent when he made that speech, and death rates were “under control”—or 48 people. 

The previous religious ceremony on July 5 at the Besakih temple was to pray for blessings from the gods so that Bali’s economic activities could run smoothly. “As much as 52 percent of the economy relies on tourism. Practically, the business world is paralyzed. Hotels and restaurants are empty. We are venturing to restore our activities in phases while being committed to the health protocols. Do not let tomorrow’s [Cogid-19] cases tarnish tourism,” Koster said in his speech. 

To drive the economy, Koster invited the Coordinating Ministry of Maritime Affairs and the Ministry of Tourism to organize ministerial events and meetings in Bali. He also requested the Ministry of Law and Human Rights Regulation No. 11 of 2020 on the temporary prohibition of foreigners from visiting Indonesia to be evaluated. “[I] called the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Law and Human Rights to come and talk about this on August 10. Please discuss this at the cabinet meeting so that Bali can be a priority, especially foreign tourists. Things will get worse the longer it takes,” pleaded Koster. 

Wishnutama admitted that health indicators are the first consideration for tourists, so health protocols must be better. He said that some tourism recovery programs focusing on Bali are under preparations, such as the prototypes for clean toilets in Kuta beach, bailout funds, and electricity relief program for the tourism industry.

Goodbye Tourism, Hello Agriculture.

One of the people who had to make dramatic changes because of the pandemic was Sukerta. From a driver for tourists to a duck breeder. 

Sukerta, who had also worked at hotels, predicted that the impact of the pandemic will last for a long time and who knows how long. After being jobless for two months, he finally built a shed and took care of 650 ducks on a farm.

He learned the trade from his siblings, all duck breeders in Lepang village, Klungkung—one of the centers for livestock adjacent to rice fields and beaches. The local climate and temperature were more suitable for raising ducks than chickens.

Sukerta admitted that it was not that easy to be a breeder. Aside from the shed, he also needed to search for ducks and the starting capital for animal feed. “Only 30 percent out of 650 ducks have laid eggs. [Their meat] are still tasteless as food,” he said. 

When the pandemic is over, and the tourists return, will he return as a driver for tourists? 

“Hard to tell. We might be in it for the long run. Tourism is vulnerable to natural disasters, contagious diseases. Even though there is recovery, [people] might still not want to visit. Even we do not dare to go to the next village,” he continued. 

Compared to other emergency situations such as the eruption of Mount Agung and the Bali bombings, the Covid-19 pandemic had hit the tourism sector in Bali the biggest. During the eruption, Sukerta claimed that it had only been a couple of weeks before things returned to normal. 

So far, he would see how his duck farming goes and the world’s situation, including adding more livestock if possible. If he thinks that he could go back to be a driver again, his wife will take over the farm. 

As a freelance driver who used to frequent Legian, Kuta, and promoting his services through a website, he felt increasingly pushed aside by online transportation application companies. “We are the conventional cab drivers who meritoriously introduced Bali [to tourists], but why does [the government] prioritized helping online companies?” Sukerta wondered. 

Meanwhile, in Buleleng district—about a three-hour drive away from Bali’s provincial capital city Denpasar, 33-year old village head Dewa Komang Yudi was racking his brain to formulate a long-term strategy to respond to the tourism business’ “demise.”

Hundreds of residents of Tembok village had come back after leaving or losing their jobs in tourism. A barren area sitting between the volcanic Mount Agung and the seacoast. “If the pandemic does not stop, what if in three to six months, it is still there? The economy slows down, but we need to survive,” Komang Yudi said in an online discussion on villages against the pandemic, Friday (24/7). 

However, with many of his residents losing jobs, Komang Yudi believed that they could not rely on the village fund alone. Starting May-June, he planned a resource-heavy non-infrastructure program using the village budget as starting capital. The sectors being developed were agriculture—land intensification with vegetable and mango tree commodities and mask sewing convection business. Employed residents would receive their wages daily.

On the other hand, he also worries that this strategy will drain his village funds. Because he had to create dozens of jobs for 90 percent of his residents who were laid off or dismissed. 

Yudi then came up with a new scheme, a simple plan to ensure food stability for his village. “We cannot go on buying [from others]. So [we] must plant [our own food]. I have people who cannot afford to buy prepaid electricity, new uniform, or rice,” he said.

He is confident that his residents will firstly focus on their basic needs, which is food. “It does not matter if you cannot go to school, but you’re in trouble if you cannot cook,” he continued.  So, his village has stopped paying the residents their daily wage because they can no longer afford it while the pandemic in Bali showed no signs of being over. 

Komang Yudi had been paying his people around Rp70,000 (US$4.69) per day, and he had replaced them with necessities. “Food security would be a serious problem, not only supply but also [people’s] purchasing power,” he warned. 

He also hoped that the government would show more synergy in responding to problems at the village level. He said that food security should be the primary concern for the pandemic. A fundamental and essential case that must be made a priority. “[It is also a] momentum for policy reconstruction in villages. Invite [everyone] to develop those that we have been ignoring this whole time,” he said. 

When the pandemic first struck and Bali’s tourism slumps, the discourse was always brought up. Bali should return to agriculture as the primary support of its economic development. All this time, Bali seemed to prioritize tourism more and, consequently, forgot agriculture as its root.

A report by Bank of Indonesia’s Bali Representative also mentioned that the economic growth in the first quarter of 2020 slowed to the range of 3.7 to 4.1 percent. This was caused by the policies to anticipate COVID-19 transmissions, such as closing international flights and suspending visas for foreign visitors.

Interestingly, at the beginning of the global pandemic, the export value of goods from Bali increased. According to the Central Statistics Agency (BPS), the value of exported goods from Bali through various ports in February reached US$ 50,764,165. It was up 8.95 percent compared to the previous month, or 4.37 percent compared to February last year.

The exported goods still include agricultural products. On Sunday, April 26, Bali exported a ton of mangosteen and 504 containers of handicrafts to the United Arab Emirates via the Benoa port. 

The shift of Bali’s economic structure from the primary sector, namely agriculture, to tertiary (service-related tourism) started to increase in the year 2000. That change was seen in the 2003 and 2013 agriculture survey by BPS Bali. 

Within ten years (2003-2013), the number of farming households have declined by 17.09 percent, from 492,394 families in 2003 to 408,233 in 2013. As much as 1,000 hectares of farmland per year were reappropriated into other functions.

This is in line with BPS Bali data that mentioned a steady decline of agriculture contribution in the past ten years, from 2010 to 2019. From 17 percent to 13 percent. Conversely, tourism contribution continued to rise from 45 percent in 2010 to 47 percent. 

However, interestingly, six months after the pandemic, nationwide BPS data released on August 5 showed that the economic growth in the second quarter was led by agriculture with 16%, followed by information and communication with 3%. Meanwhile, the most significant deficit was transportation and logistics at -29%, followed by accommodation and food services with -22%.

No budget allocation for agriculture in Covid-19 response

Because the agriculture sector is resilient enough during the pandemic, there was no budget allocation for the Covid-19 response focusing in this sector. As stated in Bali Gubernatorial Decree No. 15 of 2020 on Policy Package for Acceleration of Corona Virus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Response in Bali. 

Quoting a press release dated April 23, the policy structure for COVID-19 response on social welfare was in the form of the Social Safety Net (JPS) with a budget ceiling of Rp261.3 billion consisting of two schemes. 

The First Scheme was a Social Safety Net (JPS) program with a budget ceiling of Rp149.3 billion for underprivileged Traditional Villages or Desa Adat, and Non-Cash Food Assistance (BPNT) for 1,493 Traditional Villages.

The Second Scheme, a Social Safety Net (JPS) program, was targeted at underprivileged communities with a budget ceiling of Rp112 billion and consisting of five Packages.

Package 1-for underprivileged families who do not receive the Family Hope Program (PKH), Non-Cash Food Assistance (BPNT), Cas Social Assistance (BST), Direct Cash Assistance (BLT), and Pre-Work Cards from the Central Government and Regional Governments. Those who fall under the Package 1 category were eligible to receive Non-cash Food Assistance (BPNT). The Assistance for this package was budgeted at Rp 10 billion.

Package 2-for formal workers whose employment was terminated (PHK) during the pandemic or were sent home without pay by companies working in the tourism, trade, and industry sectors. The Assistance for this package was budgeted at Rp36 million.

Package 3-for informal workers (daily laborers, drivers, and parking attendants) Rp27,782,700,000.

Package 4-for education costs of students in private Elementary Schools (SD), Middle Schools (SMP), High Schools/Vocational Schools/Schools for Disabled Children (SMA/SMK/SLB) whose parents were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic with a school fee (SPP) subsidy. The subsidy was budgeted at Rp15,717,300,000.

Package 5-for education costs of students at private and state colleges/universities whose parents or themselves were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with a subsidy for education cost per semester, for the total budget of Rp22.5 billion.

Waiting for the Pandemic to End or Adapt

When will tourists return to Bali? If the new normal requires some things, such as a declining curve for new positive cases, the situation in Bali tends to fluctuate. On July 2, Bali set a record for new positive cases with 113 patients in a single day ever since it documented its first case on March 10. Cumulatively as per July 26, there were 3,219 Covid-19 cases in Bali, of which 601 cases are being treated, 2,570 patients recovered, and 48 had died (2%).

However, the data—especially deaths, begs to question. Because many new positive cases were confirmed after the patient died but not recorded as Covid-19 death.

When can Bali or Indonesia be declared pandemic-free such as New Zealand? Prof. dr. Dewa Nyoman Wirawan, one of Bali’s epidemiologists, said that the tourism campaign should not be parallel with the Covid-19 response. “I am a business owner too. I have a hotel. But I don’t think foreign tourists are allowed [by their respective governments] to go to Bali because they are monitoring the numbers, statistics,” explained the senior doctor who recently joined a state-initiated team of experts to trace Covid-19 cases.

As a health professional, he chose to stick to medical science before providing any input, including whether Bali will go back to be bustling with visitors when the region is open for tourism in early September.

Wirawan believed that foreign tourists were only allowed by their government to visit Bali when the region has fulfilled epidemiologic indicators. “So, not based on statements that we are prepared with health protocols,” he reminded. No matter how much foreign tourists say that they want to visit Bali, but if their government does not allow them to, then they cannot go.

Those epidemiologic indicators are, firstly, the number of people—not specimens, tested with PCR swab should reach a minimum of 1 per 1,000 population per week. If Bali’s population is around 4.6 billion, then the target is about 650 people should get PCR swab tests per day. This target can be reached with optimum case-tracking because not everyone can be tested. 

Secondly, a stable positivity rate below 5%. Not fluctuating. The positivity rate is the percentage of patients who tested positive for Covid-19 and is calculated by dividing the number of positive results by the number of tests.

Quoting a Kompas.com article titled: “Beyond WHO Threshold, Indonesia’s Covid-19 Positivity Rate at 12.3 Percent. What is the Impact?” It mentioned that until July 24, 777,100 people took the swab test nationally, of which 95,418 tested positive. Then the total positivity rate in Indonesia was around 12.3 percent. This means, every 100 Indonesian people who took the swab test/PCR, there will be 12 people who tested positive.

Thirdly, the average number of people/contacts traced for one case should be at least 25 people. “On contact tracing of its positive cases, Bali has an average of 14 people while the WHO standard is 25 people,” said Wirawan, who was also known as the go-to person for data analysis on HIV and AIDS cases in Bali since they were first discovered.

Fourthly, the reproduction or transmission rate (RT) should be stable below 1. This resulted from modeling or calculation using a specific formula to assume how many people can one positive person infect? It is believed that the rate for Bali is below 1. However, it needs to be confirmed again, using more accurate data. 

According to Wirawan, foreign consulates will not give the green light if the RT is above 1 and the positivity rate is above 5. “If we cannot fulfill those four indicators for an extended period, we cannot imagine how it is going to be for Balinese people whose lives rely on the tourism sector,” he added.

On Bali’s Covid-19 information website, these indicators cannot be found. There is only the number of increases in cases, deaths, undergoing treatment, and recovered. According to Wirawan, those indicators must be released regularly. He also said the lack of data transparency will make it difficult for Bali to convince foreign tourists to visit. 

Another critical factor is prevention, such as the implementation of health protocols. The reason is, Wirawan continued, the difference with SARS, the Coronavirus is in the nose and throat. So, someone with the virus can transmit them to others by sneezing or talking. 

Compared to HIV that needed more extended treatment, Covid-19 can be treated relatively quicker when following several requirements. Wirawan gave several examples: finding active cases with optimal tracing, detection, and treatment with tenable treatment facilities, isolation, and quarantine for people without symptoms (OTG). OTGs are another problem. Many people without symptoms (40% on average), if not quarantined, will lead to more outbreaks—effectively prolonging the pandemic.

As a small island in which the economy relies on tourism, Wirawan felt that Bali should be more progressive in responding to the pandemic. Central government policy should not necessarily be fully applied in Bali because the situation is different. For example, Bali does not have large factories or industries. The dominant service is tourism that is more vulnerable to contagious diseases and disasters. 

“It seems that [we] can only wait for the vaccine. It’s hard to make a projection because the data is not that accurate. Just like weather forecasting, if the temperature, humidity, wind direction data are not accurate, then the forecast will be too,” Wirawan explained.

Head of Bali Health Office doctor Ketut Suarjaya said that they are tracing the Covid-19 cases with a swab test following a reactive rapid result. So far, from those who were swabbed, approximately 30 percent tested positive with PCR. “Most of them are asymptomatic,” said Suarjaya.

Only those with symptoms who are isolated and treated at hospitals. While those who tested positive with no symptoms were quarantined. There are six isolation facilities available. They are the Bapelkes (Health Service Agency), Ibis Kuta Hotel, Gran Mega Hotel, and Ramada Hotel—with a total capacity of 600 beds.

There are 13 hospitals with a capacity of 585 beds in isolation rooms. “So far, 250-300 beds are occupied,” Suarjaya said on July 22. Meanwhile, as much as 250 beds were occupied on the provincial quarantine rooms. It even reached 500 when the cases peaked in early July.

Some self-isolate if confirmed positive and without symptoms, with monitoring by the local hospital, traditional village, and other institutions.

Suarjaya said that the recovery rate in Bali was relatively high, around 74 percent. The death rate was also relatively low even though it had risen a bit, approximately 1.7 percent.

He further claimed that treatments were not only being done downstream but also preventive actions upstream. By education and promotion so that the public understands that COVID-19 can be prevented. “We should not be too pessimistic, paranoid, with the pandemic to improve our immunity,” Suarjaya added.

Looking at its case per case, the dominant death happened to people in advanced age (older than 45 years old) and those with comorbidity. Mostly kidney, diabetes mellitus, chronic lung disease, and heart disease.

The increase in positive cases, according to Suarjaya, was caused by several factors, firstly, lack of discipline. “There are a lot of people who might be positive but without symptoms. Every time we trace, we found asymptomatic people. So, the more we trace, the more we can find those OTG,” he continued.

The health situation convinced the opinion that the pandemic in the country is far from over. Instead of promotion and inviting holidaymakers, it would be more realistic to strengthen what is in front of our eyes and provide hope in the middle of this pandemic crisis, which is food. Another problem is the low number of local produce used in food aids.

As summarized in an online public discussion titled, “Check-Recheck Covid-19 Social Aid Data in Bali and Use of Local Produce” that took place on Tuesday afternoon (4/8/2020). The discussion was organized collaboratively by several civil society organizations—Balebengong, Sakti Bali, Denpasar Legal Aid Foundation (LBH), and the Denpasar chapter of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI).

I Wayan Parmiyasa, the Head of Empowerment and Assistance of the Underprivileged of Bali’s Social and Women and Children Empowerment Office, said that the food aid packages were not decided by his office, but the central and provincial government. Parmiyasa agreed that local produce is crucial since the budget for the aid was quite large. 

According to Parmiyasa’s office, the total value of BPNT/food aid/food program from the Social Affairs Ministry in Bali for April and May reached over Rp51 billion. That has not included food relief that was sourced from the province, district, village, and Desa Adat.

Nyoman Suma Artha from Pasar Rakyat (Community Market) Bali said that much local produce in Bali could not be sold at the market, even though many people need it. He has been participating in the distribution process by purchasing from local farmers to be sold elsewhere. The revenue was then used for community kitchens to give out free rice meals.  

(The author Luh De, has been published in Bahasa on Balebengong.id)

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