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'We just wait for a miracle': Bali faces its biggest crisis as COVID-19 leaves hundreds starving

Sydney Morning Herald - November 23, 2020

Marta Pascual Juanola – At this time of the year, Jimbaran local Yeny Fita Wulandari would usually be run off her feet, juggling jobs in a busy spa and thriving tour business in Poppies Lane, one of Kuta's many buzzing laneways.

But this year, the mother-of-three can barely put food on the table.

International border closures in April delivered a terminal blow to Bali's economy, obliterating the tourism industry and leaving a hole worth billions of dollars.

Government data places unemployment rates at 7.5 per cent, but not-for-profit organisations estimate the reality to be much higher – closer to 80 per cent, with official statistics unreliable due to the amount of people not registered as either employed or unemployed.

The situation has become so dire some are struggling to feed their families, pay bills, or afford essentials like baby formula, nappies, and medicine. Others are selling their cars, scooters, businesses and personal belongings in a desperate bid to make ends meet.

Australian charity worker Amanda Rialdi said she had come across elderly people so malnourished they could barely get out of bed; others had been abandoned by their family after becoming a financial burden.

In the eastern town of Amed, charity worker Michele Yoga said a 90-year-old blind man had been living off sambal and plain rice for weeks.

Confronting footage captured by workers at Sheppys Bar and Restaurant in Legian shows dozens of Balinese, including children, scrambling to get hold of free food packs from the restaurant as staff urges them to remain calm.

For Ms Wulandari, who was forced to close down her businesses in March, some days are so tough she can only feed rice and ketchup to her children. Milk has also become a luxury she can only afford a handful of days a month.

"Sometimes it is hard to tell [my children] the truth when they ask for milk, as we used to serve them before bed," she said.

"The hardest part is when the kids have to face us crying or arguing on the phone with the bank over a loan. Mentally, we are not good."

The family can't afford to pay bills and has been forced to sell one of their scooters after being unable to meet their monthly repayments.

Ms Wulandari's husband has picked up a few construction shifts around Jimbaran, but nine hours of intense labor under the sun yields a mere $10 in pay.

In Denpasar, driver and tour guide Kadek Tarukan relies on food and cash donations from expats and not-for-profits to keep his household afloat.

The father-of-five, who lost his income of about $500 a month when the borders closed in April, said he was just "waiting for a miracle".

Mr Tarukan's wife, a nurse at Sanglah Hospital in Denpasar, earns about $250 a month but her pay barely covers bills, school fees, and food costs.

"Sometimes I go to the village to pick some vegetables and bring them to Denpasar to cook," Mr Tarukan said.

The family hasn't been able to afford meat for months.

The busy main strips of Kuta, Seminyak, and Ubud, usually packed with hordes of tourists driving mopeds on the way to clubs and bars, are empty.

A trip from Denpasar to the resort village of Canggu, which would usually take about an hour in bumper-to-bumper traffic, is barely 20 minutes.

'For lease' signs hang in the doors and windows of popular eateries and cafes, as desperate shop owners sit on the front steps of their businesses, waiting for customers.

The tourism industry employed about 70 per cent of the Balinese working population and is worth more than $12 billion. In 2019 Australians funnelled nearly $3 billion into the island, followed by Chinese tourists, who contributed just over $2 billion.

Those lucky enough to keep their jobs have lost 50 per cent of their income in tips and have had their salaries slashed. The rest have gone on a massive exodus back to the villages, which are struggling to cope with the arrivals.

In the eastern region of Amed, the community was barely starting to recover from the Mount Agung eruption of 2017 and the Lombok earthquake of 2018 when the pandemic struck.

Now, about 80 per cent of its 23,000 residents are unemployed.

Ms Yoga, who has been running the Yayasan Team Action Amed charity foundation since 2017, said mothers were feeding their babies water because they couldn't pay for formula.

"It's getting harder and harder out here," she said.

"The people who were working in tourism, they are not supporting themselves, they are supporting elderly parents, grandparents. So to take that income away is really impactful.

"We've lost five of our ongoing patients to other illnesses probably exacerbated by the lack of food. There's a lot of people with malnutrition."

Ms Yoga's team has delivered about 6600 food packs containing enough eggs, cooking oil, vegetables and rice to feed a family of four for about a week and is now in the process of acquiring land to teach locals how to harvest sustainable crops like kale, chillies, watermelons, and sunflowers.

In the south, Ms Rialdi has given more than 350,000 meals and food packs to struggling Balinese since April through her charity Let's Help Bali COVID-19.

"Some of them can still eat one time a day or they have started a little business on the side selling food, which is enough for them to eat but they don't have money to support their families," Ms Rialdi said.

"I'm seeing people hungry every day, they are saying they haven't eaten for three days."

Ms Rialdi and Ms Yoga said the pain was worse than the aftermath of the Bali bombings in 2002, which saw tourists vanish for months.

"When the bombings happened, the place was like a ghost town but it bounced back; all the die-hard Bali lovers wouldn't let a bomb put them off and just kept coming," Ms Yoga said.

This time, the crisis has no end in sight and its fallout is catastrophic.

In Jimbaran, Lilis Sri Andawiyah wants to be strong for her family but hope is running low and things are getting tougher.

The former nanny and her husband have been out of work since February and are struggling to come up with $15 a month to pay for tuition at their son's Islamic school on the neighbouring Indonesian island of Java.

"If Bali is still quiet like right now, what can I do for my son?" she said. For now, Ms Andawiyah can only pray the pandemic will finally end.

Source: https://www.smh.com.au/national/western-australia/we-just-wait-for-a-miracle-bali-faces-its-biggest-crisis-as-covid-19-leaves-hundreds-starving-20201117-p56fce.htm