Troy Sinclair on COVID myths, Indonesian resilience and lonely, Desert Point pits.
Australian ex-pat, Troy Sinclair has lived and worked in Bali full-time since 2004. His family built the resort, Batu Karang Lembongan, on the island of Nusa Lembongan, just off the coast Bali, and Troy has been entrenched in the tourism industry for the last fifteen years. An avid surfer and acknowledged tube-hound, he has travelled extensively throughout Indonesia for both work and waves. In the lengthy interview below, Troy discusses why he believes Bali, Indonesia, and Lembongan have fared much better in the COVID pandemic than many expected. In addition to his considered opinions on the path to economic recovery for Bali, Troy also provides details on the sparsely populated lineups and insane sessions he has enjoyed during the Covid window.
Your family built a resort on Nusa Lembongan Has Lembongan always been a magical place for you?
Yes we built Batu Karang Lembongan Resort www.batukaranglembongan.com Ironically enough the very first wave I caught in Indonesia was out at a break here on Nusa Lembongan called Razors , a really hard wave to get on but when you score it, it’s worth the wait and still one of my favourites….. I remember flying into Bali as a 20-yr-old and hitting the old Paddies and Sari Club on arrival , the night remains a blur but I distinctly remember waking up with a knock at the door from an American guy that had arranged a boat trip to Sumbawa for myself and mates and that ‘we were leaving now……’ We got on one of the old Jukungs that departed from Sanur and off we went straight to Lembongan as our first stop of the journey. So yes it has definitely always been a magical place for me.
Do the people on Lembongan see themselves as somewhat independent of the Balinese? Has the island had a high incidence of COVID-19 in your opinion?
The Lembongan people definitely see themselves as Balinese. They actually fall under the regency of Klungkung Regency and most of the families here have strong ties back to Sanur, many have family compounds on the mainland as well as here on Nusa Lembongan. In regards to COVID on the islands, to date, there has not been a single case registered to Nusa Lembongan or Nusa Penida. Now, I know the narrative hardliners will be crying out that there has been a lack of testing etc but we also have not seen any increase in deaths or funerals. It’s a small community here and if it did land here we would know about it pretty quickly, especially if the narrative hardliners were in fact correct about the deadliness and infectiousness of the disease. At Batu Karang we have 145+staff members so have a large number of families represented and we have not heard of any abnormal deaths or people even being sick with any kind of flu etc so for us it remains a bit of an enigma especially, given the large amount of Chinese tourists that visited the island through January and February and even the International visitation up until mid-April when things eventually got shutdown. It seems almost impossible that it hasn’t landed here, yet we still haven’t had a confirmed case.
You travel extensively in Indonesia. What’s the mood in the country like now?
For the vast majority of Indonesia, disease has simply just been a part of day to day life. Indonesia lies in the tropics and is riddled with Malaria, Tuberculosis, Dengue Fever to name a few, which represents a much larger mortality rate within Indonesia than what Covid has managed to produce so far. So for many, it is perhaps just another ailment that could potentially harm you.
As I write to you now I am actually in East Java, which is Indonesia’s current COVID19 Hot Spot. I think in terms of mood and outlook you are looking at a massive cultural difference here. Indonesia is a big country that traditionally has not had the same level of healthcare, albeit it is slowly getting better and better under the initiatives of the Joko Widodo government. I think the west probably takes for granted its healthcare systems so when something like COVID comes along it can be a bit of a shock to the system. We see things like the panic buying and prepper type mentality, which have played out in Australia, UK and even the States.
In terms of per capita infections as of today, Indonesia has 68,000 recorded positive tests according to Worldometer which on the surface to many Australians would seem like an apocalypse however in terms of population this would be the same as Australia having 5,984 cases (Australia has had over 10000 confirmed cases). In saying this it doesn’t mean that they have not responded in terms of lockdowns and ‘new normal protocols’ it’s still a focus of both the government and communities to contain the spread. It doesn’t mean to say that Indonesia’s numbers won’t continue to increase either as I believe they will, however, given that it has been here since January already, it’s clear that it is not on the same exponential trajectory that we have seen in some parts of the world. It will likely continue on a slow burn due to mitigating factors we don’t yet know. I am fairly confident that there is a combination of external factors that are preventing it from spreading as fast as what we have seen in say the US where there are 50-60 thousand cases a day. Indonesia has taken almost 7 months to hit 2,000 cases a day.
Do you think they have done a decent job of handling the COVID crisis?
Has anywhere done a decent job? It depends where you sit on the issue economy v health. If you ask my Tin Hat prepper mate hiding down in Roti who masquerades as a Narrative Hardliner, places like Western Australia and Queensland have done a great job but now will find themselves isolated. You ask some of the small businesses in those states and you get a different answer right? Globally the amount of misinformation and the different approaches countries have made in response to the pandemic have been as varied as they have been successful, there doesn’t really seem to be anywhere that has really been able to properly stop it even with the large scale lockdowns other than say China but even then do we really know? It’s not something that had perhaps been properly planned for and with a limited understanding of the actual disease (even to this day), much has been reactive. I think if we put it into perspective we are actually quite lucky that the disease has not been more devastating or lived up to its early days of fearmongering and end of the world ‘deadly’ disease prescriptions. If you compare over history this COVID Pandemic with say the Bubonic plague which reduced the planet's population by nearly 25% or the Spanish Flu which was said to have killed nearly 70 million people and also reduce the planet’s population at the time all of a sudden the 500,000 victims of Covid19 across an even larger population of 7.7 billion now, it doesn’t seem to stack up, especially when you consider that during the same time frame the world’s population has actually grown by 40 million and continues to accelerate. It really hasn’t touched us – but I guess that doesn’t really provide as great clickbait does it. This is also not to disregard the loss of lives we have witnessed as this is indeed tragic for the families it has touched as any loss to any disease would be. I can hear the Narrative Hardliners and Experts desperate to defend their predictive infection rate models jumping in to say that without the lockdowns it would have been much worse and of course that goes without saying but as we learn more about the disease and as its current mortality rate, which is currently declining, it’s probably a good thing it has not been as bad as initially prescribed.
In regards to Indonesia itself, being the 4th Largest country in the world it has the added challenge of having 270 million people spread across thousands of islands, which I can assure you is a lot harder to lockdown than say Australia, which is only 24 million. It does have the benefit of being able to lockdown the islands and thus quarantine the population into more parts so that can be a bit of a benefit if you can get the people to follow. The population densities are also completely different too, Australia doesn’t represent a high density so would be easier to mitigate. You look at New Zealand who managed to eradicate it, but it’s now back there as well. I mean everyone appears to have done their best even China with its iron fist still has new cases every day. I think with the containment strategies they have done well but let's face it, it’s here now and short of a vaccine it’s probably the best result you can hope for right? Learn to live with it as best we can under a mitigated risk assessment and what they call the new normal. I mean if you eradicate it then you become faced with being isolated from the rest of the world and how long can that be sustained for? As long as there is Covid19 in other countries no matter how stringent your protocols are, as soon as you open to other countries then you’re at risk and as we have seen if you get just one case it can very quickly start again – look at what’s happening in Victoria right now?
Is there a risk that Indonesia will grossly underestimate or under-report the impact of COVID-19 because they are anxious to have tourist dollars flowing through the economy once again?
Indonesia has had a lot of barbs thrown at it in terms of ‘suspected underreporting’ or suggested widespread of COVID19 and due to a perceived inability to deal with the pandemic or that given the size of the country it should be posting numbers similar to the US. Everyone seems to look at it through their own prism. There has been little or no consideration given to any particular or potential mitigating factors that may be particular to Indonesia like climate, humidity, lack of massive public transport infrastructures like underground subways or trains etc. In Bali for example everyone has their own bike and rides to work so just there you are reducing the ability of it to spread through shared or public transport. There is also the outdoor nature of much of Indoneisia’s work force through farming, fishing. They don’t live in apartment blocks and share elevators where the disease can be spread quickly. People actually wearing masks when they have a common cold is actually already a common practice so whilst it is definitely here and more than likely more than has been recorded so far there is definitely something outside of the pure government-enforced protocols that is impacting the ability of COVID to spread anywhere near as fast as it has in other countries like the States, Italy and UK for example. I think the world has been too quick to model the disease off of the handful of worse case scenarios and copy-paste to everywhere else without proper assessment of potential mitigating factors. I mean when you get to the base of the argument it comes down to individual risk versus systematic risk and when you see what happened in Italy there is an automatic fear that will happen in your own country. I guess you have to look at why Italy got hit so hard what are the other factors outside of the disease itself that resulted in it being hit so hard. If you look to Indonesia’s neighbours for comparison like Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines etc they have all had similar low levels of COVID, albeit in pure numbers perhaps larger than say Australia in terms of per capita infections a much lower infection rate, in fact none of these countries have actually reached the same level as Australia yet. Also in terms of COVID the baseline will always be the deaths – no amount of underreporting, hiding or even lack of autopsies will be able to hide the bodies. If we really did have a big problem, with social media being so intrusive these days we would without a doubt be seeing the mass graves as we have in Italy, New York, and Brazil, but that’s simply not happening. I mean we now know that COVID is particularly dangerous for the elderly with existing underlying issues who perhaps would have met the same fate if they got a bad dose of the flu or dengue fever or other nasty diseases. This makes up the majority of the deaths. There are a small representation of young and healthy people dying or the peanut guy/girl (the one vulnerable person like the one person in the room allergic to peanuts) but it seems that when COVID runs into a young and healthy population it doesn’t seem to have anywhere near the same impact. Indonesia has a median age of 29 and a life expectancy of 70, when we consider that the vast majority of deaths sit in the bracket of 65 and above and that most other countries have life expectancies of 80 there are a whole lot more venerable people in those countries. There is also the fact that through Health Care systems in the West by keeping people alive longer through healthcare you inherently begin to have a larger population that is perhaps more susceptible to a new disease like COVID. Perhaps in Indonesia there is a lack of COVID candidates because anyone with a weak immune system has likely already been taken out by any number of the other ailments we have in the tropics, leaving a more robust elderly generation?
In terms of opening up for tourism one has to remember that whilst in Australia and countries like the UK there is some support provided through Job Seeker and Job Keeper type programs that simply do not exist here. The luxury of a “Health First Policy’ is not enjoyed as much here. As we have seen in Australia the “Health First Strategy’ only really lasted 4 weeks as what was supposed to be a 6-month Lockdown turned into reopening 4 weeks later, followed by a Federal Government pushing the states to reopen as quick as “medically safe”. Very quickly rebooting the economy has become the focus because I am not sure anyone was prepared for what the cost of the economic shutdown was going to be and once the numbers started dropping in along with the plethora of other health issues it was starting to cause all of a sudden shutting down for very long was not going to work. Unfortunately, whether we like it or not Economic health and Physical health go hand in hand, without the economy turning over and taxes flowing in, the Government can’t prop up the very systems we require to maintain our health and safety, people can’t feed their families etc , so eventually, you are forced to reopen. It’s a real chicken and egg situation and whilst we can easily blast our Politicians, I don’t envy their position right now, unfortunately, they are ultimately doomed … they are dammed if they do and dammed if they don’t. They have had to navigate the whole pandemic with little or no true understanding of this new disease and in many cases, they have been forced into worse case scenarios based on the unknown. I mean we are 6 months into this now and we are only now starting to get solid information based on proper data analysis and research. Before now the governments simply didn’t have this so it was to some extent flying blind.
Bali has no choice but to get things going again and they are going to have to do it under a containment strategy much like Australia and an acceptance that there will remain a very low level of Covid. The key will be to mitigate that risk and keep it in perspective. It will be very hard to totally eradicate even in Australia eventually Australia too will have to take the steps to open internationally and that will have to be done with the risk that COVID will come back. Bali is already doing this, they are busy rolling out ‘New Normal’ protocols for all hotels and tourism entities in order to make sure Bali remains as safe a destination as anywhere and that they are ready for the September 11 opening date. We are yet to receive information on what the entry protocols will be, but I am sure that if PCB swab Tests and entry only available to countries who have Covid under control then it shouldn’t be a big issue. To date Bali has been very lucky as it has managed to be one of the lowest per capita infection rates in Indonesia and indeed the World so with the new protocols in place it is really positioning itself well to be one of the first International tourist destinations to reopen.
You work in tourism, but does Bali make itself vulnerable by being so dependent upon the tourist dollar?
It’s a hard one to answer. Is the Middle East vulnerable to an oil crisis? Did anyone see a Pandemic coming? How does it differentiate itself what other industries could it turn too? When a crisis like this happens it highlights your weaknesses and naturally forces change, but Bali has been here before many times and it always bounces back.
What’s the right road map forward for tourist operators in Bali and Indonesia?
There is a great opportunity in being one of the first destinations to re-open, it gives you a real chance to drive into new markets. Whilst Bali is perhaps one of Australia’s main destinations for tourism in terms of Pure Tourist numbers Bali was still in its infancy when compared to Thailand and Malaysia. From memory, Thailand and Malaysia record 27 and 24 million international tourist visits a year whereas Indonesia currently only receives around 11 million mainly through Bali. For any international tourism moving forward the choices for destinations will be limited so there is that opportunity. As far as a road map going forward for tourist operators I think this will be largely framed by the new normal protocols presented by the government. Everywhere we go now everyone is wearing masks, every shop has a hand sanitizer facility at its doorstep, reception desks are putting up perspex screens and at high contact zones so there is a movement happening. It’s what we need to do if we are to build the trust of our international visitors. To be honest, in most professionally run resorts many of the cleaning standards and procedures already met COVID standards as they are not too different to what you would need to do for just general cleanliness, I guess it will just be a bit more of a focus on what have always been the basics – wash your hands…..
Does the health crisis have to be brought under control considerably more before the economy can reboot? Will that happen?
As mentioned above in terms of it being a health crisis I am not sure it really meets the criteria here in Bali. We are at 25 deaths in 6 months, shall I start with the motorbike deaths, dengue and other ailments? That’s not to take weight away from COVID – I can hear the hardliners rustling their feathers … it’s more that to date as the numbers show we don’t seem to have a very large infection rate. COVID has been here since probably January and if it was to become a real problem we would have surely seen it by now. I think that if we can make the adjustments under the new normal and keep the numbers low like we have to date then we can begin to get back on with it.
Should Australia play a role in helping Bali and Indonesia? Is that an option?
I think Australia has its own battles to fight, for now, I mean Indonesia is not really that worse off than Australia in terms of numbers as already alluded to above, it’s not like we have a disproportionately larger problem at the moment. With the bushfires earlier in the year followed by COVID Australia’s tourism industry has been just as decimated as Bali. I think Australia will try to keep its international borders closed for as long as they can to try and reboot their own domestic tourism and keep the spending local rather than see a flood of people going outbound for holidays. Of course, there is the consideration of keeping any more imported cases out. But in terms of policy, I think it’s the right thing for them to do, everyone is hurting not just Bali. But yes in terms of helping I guess like Australia and Indonesia have always done they can share information on protocols, contact tracing techniques, etc to help ensure our region of the world is applying the best standards possible to move forward.
On a lighter note, it looks like you have been scoring some epic waves. Where have you surfed in the last few months?
Yes well it’s been RAD…. I have been mainly surfing all the breaks on Lembongan and Deserts. Deserts is just across the channel from Lembongan so we are really close. Until June 1st no one could actually get to Deserts so it was completely empty, only a handful of lads we call the “Pirates of Lombok” who have access to boats that have been able to get there. Even the local lads were on their annual religious Ramadhan Holidays through May so we are talking 4-6 guys in the water, which for Deserts is just unheard of…. There were more waves in a set than guys in the water… so you do the Maths…. Even after the recent borders opening the crowds have remained low, I think the busiest it has been since June 1 is 20 guys in the water at one time, at least the times I have gone over.
Lembongan has been great too, it’s a real joy to be able to surf these waves with only a handful of people I think something I will cherish for a long time to come. Early morning Lacerations by yourself can be a real treat. Without the hotel being open there has been even more time to get in the water too, which is also a bit of a silver lining. It’s been a really good reminder of how life can get in the way and that sometimes you are not appreciating what’s right on your doorstep or you’re not getting out there enough. I have certainly changed that this year.
Was there a period where you definitely couldn’t sneak out for a few waves?
Each region has been in charge of its own area in terms of what restrictions have been deployed. We have been really lucky as surfing was never restricted here on Lembongan so we have had a free-for-all and the island itself was closed off to Bali so the Canggu Crew etal couldn’t sneak over either, so it was just us.
Have the crowds been considerably less intense than usual in the water?
What crowd ? Even if there is a crew most are surfed out or have filled their boots in recent times so things are very chilled.
Are there pockets of Bali that have been devastated by the Pandemic?
Has the experience given Bali an opportunity to breathe? Have you noticed more traditional rituals or farming practices coming back into play?
I can not speak for Bali as I am based on Nusa Lembongan but I can say the water is cleaner (albeit always was pretty good on Lembongan) but a lot of the dive sites have really been noticeably better. The sea life has been unreal, we have had dolphins inside the bay which I have never seen in 17 years, we did a trip down to one of the cleaning stations for the Manta Rays on the back of Penida and we jumped in with 12 huge Mantas one morning, some of the biggest I have seen and spent some time swimming around with them with no other boats in sight so yes there has been some real treasures and a real break for the environment.
As many of the island’s population have lost their jobs we have seen an almost instant revert to fishing and seaweed farming around the island. The bay here on Lembongan is filled with lights again at night as the locals forage for octopus, squid, sea cucumber and whatever other bounty the sea can offer up so there is also a real resilience here and ability to adapt. My place looks out over the bay and it has been really nice to see the lights again as it reminds me of a time before tourism took off in Lembongan. There is also a real bonding amongst the locals as they band together to get through these times.
Religious practices have always been a massive part of Bali life and they have always done well to keep this maintained, they certainly haven’t waivered from this since the pandemic hit.
Will it come back better equipped to deal with the massive tourist influx whilst preserving a sense of its own identity?
I can’t tell you how many people I have spoken to in Australia that are just chomping at the bit to get back to Bali.
Whilst this may be the first real disaster to hit Australian shores and indeed the Australian psyche, and it’s easy to see why it may seem like the end of the world, Bali has been here many times before. Bali Bombings 1 and 2, Bird Flu, GFC, Mt Agung Eruption, Gili Island Earthquake to highlight a few, and every time Bali has bounced back bigger and better. Covid19 represents probably the biggest challenge since the first Bali Bombing and may well be a slower recovery but I am sure that it will bounce back as it always has and why not, it is truly a fantastic part of the world.