Bali’s Covid

 Bali’s Covid

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BALI – Previously persuaded it may have a mysterious immunity, Bali appears to be headed for a cruel Covid-19 wake-up call after a single cruise ship worker who refused to self-quarantine reportedly caused widespread infections in a village in the east of the Indonesian tourist island.

Acting on April 30, authorities sealed off Abuan, lying 10 kilometers north of Gianyar, Bali’s second most densely populated district and the spiritual birthplace of Balinese kings, and confined all 2,640 villagers to their homes.

With eight cases already confirmed through swabs, medical staff descending on the picturesque rural settlement subsequently screened out 442 suspect new cases from among the 1,200 villagers they subjected to the less-reliable rapid test.

Now, the swab results from the state-run Sanglah Hospital laboratory are in: what was widely perceived to be a cluster from hell has turned out to be nothing of the kind. According to officials, none of the 442 were positive for the virus.

Despite the apparent all-clear, Bali Governor Wayan Koster says Abuan will remain in a 14-day lockdown as a precaution, along with another two villages in the district of Buleleng in northern Bali, where there have been at least 16 confirmed cases.

Sources with contacts in the local medical community are skeptical about the veracity of the figures, noting an item in the Bali Tribune on May 3 which reported 25 new confirmed cases that were subsequently not reflected in the national caseload figure.

Still, the episode only adds to the debate, highlighted last week in the New York Times, over why Covid-19 seems so capricious, devastating some places and sparing others on its frightening march across the globe.

Bali and most of  eastern Indonesia are a case in point. As of May 4, 8,235 of the 11,587 cases nationwide were on Java, while Bali, the neighboring Nusa Tenggara island chain, Papua and Maluku have had only 906 cases and just 21 deaths.

Local residents say post-arrival testing appears to have been minimal and that, like the worker in Abuan, few heeded official warnings to voluntarily self-isolate in their homes for the fortnight after they landed.

University of Udayana public health expert Dr Panda Januraga dismisses suggestions that the Balinese have an immunity, but he gives some credence to other factors, including the tropical climate, that may be slowing it down and interrupting the efficiency of transmission. 

Close contact appears to be critical. Observers note that Chinese tourists have always gone around in packs, which may have helped lower the infection rate because the number of local people they engage with is generally low.

A lack of testing aside, little research appears to have been done into a severe outbreak of influenza that swept the island at the end of 2019, raising questions about what the Australian-trained Januraga calls “under-diagnosis.” 

A large number of schools in Bali were impacted, with classrooms half-empty through December and January. All the while, Chinese tourists continued to pour in for the New Year holiday, with thousands left stranded when all flights to and from China were halted on February 5.

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