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Bali, the resort island popular with backpackers, was always seen as a fertile ground for the coronavirus as millions of foreign tourists flock to its beaches. But it is today being touted as a model by Indonesian authorities in tackling the pandemic.

The success in curbing the virus has come with the help of about 1,500 traditional village committees with considerable sway over the majority Hindu residents, according to Gov. Wayan Koster. The island with a population of 4.2 million has reported just four virus-related deaths and 337 confirmed cases for a fatality rate of 1.2 percent, far below the national average of 6.4 percent.

“A lot of people were previously very worried that Bali would be badly hit by COVID-19 as it’s the largest tourist destination in Indonesia,” Koster said in a phone interview. “But so far, the facts show a totally different picture.”

Bali’s relative success in containing the virus may give it a head start in luring visitors back when international travel resumes and revive its tourism-dependent economy. It’s also in sharp contrast to the widely-criticized efforts at the national level, which have led to deaths swelling to more than 1,000 and officials now warning the disease may infect almost 100,000 before starting to ease.

While no deadline has been set for reopening the island to tourists, Koster says a strategy is ready but it will be rolled out after Bali completely recovers from the pandemic.

Officials tapped the influential village committees and Hindu beliefs to ensure residents stayed at home and no outside visitors were permitted to avoid wider infections after a British tourist with COVID-19 was the first in Bali to succumb to the virus in early March. People were also asked to perform certain Hindu rituals for protection, which mandated them to obey local leaders, according to Gov. Koster.

A Bali police officer wearing a traditional mask performs Thursday as the new coronavirus during a campaign at a market to get people to wear masks. | AP
A Bali police officer wearing a traditional mask performs Thursday as the new coronavirus during a campaign at a market to get people to wear masks. | AP

Few other places in Indonesia, an archipelago of of 18,000 islands, have a village structure similar to Bali where leaders hold as much sway over a population of its size. Then there’s also a lack of testing, with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo calling for scaling up the nation’s diagnostic capacity, saying the daily testing of 4,000 to 5,000 specimens was “far below our target.”

The province avoided more punishing social distancing rules imposed in places such as Jakarta and West Java but locked down three villages, following local community infections from returning migrant workers. Authorities are prepared to handle the return of thousands of migrant workers, including from cruise ships, in the coming weeks, Koster said.

“The villages have a very strong influence on the community. Whatever the elders in the villages said, people will abide,” said Ngurah Wijaya, adviser to the Bali Tourism Board. “This has enabled the government to impose its policies down to the community level effectively.”

Bali’s triumph on the virus front is not limited to suppressing new cases or limiting loss of lives. The recovery rate from COVID-19 in the island is more than 66 percent, compared with national average of 22 percent. Three labs in the island can now test almost 500 specimens a day, as opposed to sending samples to cities outside the province initially. That allows authorities to speed up contact tracing and isolation, Koster said.

But the revival of its tourism industry to the pre-pandemic period is far from assured. A decision on protocols to be followed in re-opening the business will be decided in consultation with elected local leaders and community and religious heads, Koster said. The island is home to hotels operated by industry leaders such as Marriott International Inc., Wyndham Hotels & Resorts Inc. and Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc.

Bali, famous for its beaches, scenic terraced rice paddy fields and temples, saw foreign tourist arrivals slump 22 percent to 1.04 million in the first quarter from a year ago, according to official data. The island received a record 6.2 million foreign tourists last year.

“Balinese also realized that tourism is the source of their living, so we need to take care of ourselves in order to gain the trusts and confidence from the visitors,” Wijaya said. “That’s probably a key differentiation that Bali has compared with the other regions.”

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