JAKARTA - Mark Gilbert’s plan to backpack around Southeast Asia fell apart as borders closed to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. The British national arrived in Bali, Indonesia, on March 16, after a visit to Laos.
Gilbert was supposed to go to Vietnam after a short getaway on the Island of God but did not make it because Vietnam banned inbound international flights on March 21 and barred entry to all foreigners on March 22.
“So now I’m stuck in Bali,” the 34-year-old said.
Gilbert tried to book a flight to London on Saturday, but it was canceled two days before he was scheduled to fly. He contacted the British Embassy and was told that the British government would try to get him on a flight back to the country.
Nevertheless, he was skeptical that they can bring him back home soon.
“From what I’ve heard there are 4,500 Brits in Bali. That’s going to be a lot of flights,” he told VOA. He managed to find a place to stay on the island with some people he met on his trip.
'I'm stranded here'
Meanwhile, Kishori Kadve is facing a similar situation. The 29-year-old and her husband arrived in Bali from Mumbai, India, on March 14. They were supposed to stay on the island for only a week, but their flight home was canceled. Kadve booked another flight through Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on March 21, but received an email saying their flight from Kuala Lumpur to New Delhi also had been canceled.
“I’m stranded here with 50 other Indians who are in the same situation. I managed to book the cheapest hotel we could find, but I’m afraid we will only be able to survive financially until the end of March,” she said.
Kadve is worried their current situation could put them in danger if the number of coronavirus cases in Indonesia continues to rise. As of midday Saturday, Indonesia had 1,155 cases with 102 deaths, although only nine cases were recorded in Bali.
“At the moment there is not a lot of cases here, but what if we have to quarantine ourselves? What about food? We have no kitchen, we can’t cook. And we stay together with other Indians. If one of us contracted, the virus the others will, too,” Kadve said.
Kadve, who works as a software engineer in Mumbai, contacted the Indian Consulate General in Bali and was advised to extend their stay.
Expecting borders would close, the Indonesian Directorate General of Immigration stopped issuing visitor visas on March 20.
Nod to social distancing
The immigration agency has also approved emergency residence permits for 3,500 foreign nationals who are unable to leave Indonesia, most of them in Bali. Arvin Gumilang, the head of public relations at the Directorate General of Immigration, said the agency has made it possible to extend the short-term visa online to ensure social distancing.
“We’ve anticipated that there would be a queue if foreigners have to come to our office to extend their stay permit,” he said, as quoted by a local media site, Kumparan.com. The Indonesian government has also waived the fee of overstayers who arrived in Indonesia since February 5.
Although the staying permit is no longer a concern for Ankush Middha, another Indian national who is unable to find a flight home, facing a disease outbreak in a foreign country is a cause for distress. “Back home at least I know I can go to a good hospital with good doctors, but I don’t know the [health care] situation here. And our travel insurance is about to end, so I don’t know what to do if anything happens here,” he said.
Indonesia has come under scrutiny for its tepid response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has opted not to impose a nationwide lockdown, but instead has called on the public to stay at home and practice social distancing. He also promised to conduct mass testing. Other Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia and the Philippines, have taken stricter measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
According to the country’s Health Ministry, Indonesia has only 321,544 hospital beds.
With more than 260 million people, that means there are only around 12 beds per 10,000 people. Singapore has twice as many beds and South Korea has 115 beds per 10,000 people, based on data from the World Health Organization (WHO).
A 2017 WHO study also found that Indonesia only has four doctors per 10,000 people, while South Korea has six times more.
Indonesia has one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the world, at 8.8%, although experts say there could be thousands of undetected cases. And for tourists like Middha, he can only hope his government will act as soon as possible, before the worst happens.