An official sprays disinfectant to prevent the new coronavirus at a beach in Bali, Indonesia on Sunday, March 15, 2020. Image Credit: AP

Denpasar, Indonesia: I do not speak Indonesian. Nor Balinese. Nor the tongue used in Java. But I do understand body language and what it means, how people react, how their physical body displays belie what lies beneath.

On Saturday, a beautiful day here on this island paradise where the sun moves across an azure sky with all of the ease of a butterfly flitting from limb to leaf and where the clouds dare to defy social distancing and gather in twos and threes and close enough to each other to warn of a storm to come, I sat at a counter and watched a young hotel manager address his staff.

He wore a yellow polo shirt, the name of the chain embroidered over his heart, the rest of the team in their blue shirts, again proudly bearing the chain.

I will not name it lest some feel I am being overtly negative in this time of crisis. And yes, here on this island paradise, it is a time of crisis. But Bali is not alone in that. Around this world, this planet, this little blue ball that we all share as it travels around the Sun, this is a troubled time.


The beauty of being a tourist most of the time is that you get a glimpse of what life is like somewhere else, what it means to live there, what it means to have an existence other than our own. It is a handily packaged look at life beyond our immediate existence or cycle of life and work, family and commitments.

The dread of being a tourist now is that you are served a healthy dose of reality of life and what this coronavirus means.

This island is home to some 4.2 million people – roughly half of the population of the UAE. Now imagine if 80 per cent of that economy depended on what tourists spend. Those T-shirts. Those trinkets. Those taxi rides. Those meals and those tips. That is a precarious living at the best of times.

But these are not the best of times.

That team meeting in Balinese – or Indonesian, for I know not the difference – conveyed the seriousness of the situation.

That yellow-shirted team lead read from his phone. It was obviously a direction from the top of this chain.

I could pick out “orang” – which means person. If you sit on a bus and read the foreign signs, you say see it is licensed for “16 orang”. Besides, that hairy orange ape in Malaysia is an “orangutan” and means “forest person”. Language has so many common strands and is just one of the things in which we must find a commonality. But he spoke of “schedule” too. And that’s when the body language changed. Arms went across chests on the most defensive of gestures. Eyes shifted from one to another. Men inadvertently reached to cup their hands over their genitals – all clear in the most primitive of signs that the message wasn’t good.

And at the end of this team talk, they all bowed their heads in prayer. That is a hope that this too shall pass, that those clouds will have a silver lining and that this crisis is but temporary.

Here on Bali, most workers earn less than $100 (Dh367) a month. I have no idea how one lives on that. According to those who know and study such things, there are 150,000 here who live on $2 (Dh7.13) per day. The government in Jakarta has announced plans to support companies at this uncertain time. I can bet that not $1 of that will trickle down to those who rely on it most.

Such is the world we live in, a world that allows me to travel and holiday here all the way from Europe, and complain that a flight back might be cancelled or deferred. And the cost of putting things right would be more than most here live on in six months.

After the meeting is over and those shaken by its news have left, the reporter in me wants to know what was said.

Arun, a man who still retains his boyish looks but is 35 and the father of a six-year-old son, says that the staff here are to be cut from 127 to a skeleton staff of 20. Indonesia has closed its borders to foreigners, the nation is effectively on lockdown and the hotel chain has to do what is does to survive.

All of the temporary day workers – the seasonal workers who come in when Bali is at is busiest – have been let go.

It’s hard to know what to say.

I have been in war situations, curfews and tried to report from difficult places in the most difficult of times around this world. Syria. Sri Lanka. Libya. Ukraine. Ulster. Guantanamo Bay. Places where life has been turned inside out and upside down.

But this is different. Coronavirus is everywhere.

But Bali has sun and culture, greenery and beauty. Coronavirus may take the people away for now. Bali retains its inherent beauty. So too Rhuub Al Khali, so too the Palm Jumeirah, the Burj Khalifa or the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The people might be gone, the appeal still remains.

And when this is over, when social distancing is in the rear-view mirror, when quarantines are history and we all feel safe and secure in seeing what this wonderful world and its people have in common and what we have to share, this too shall pass.

And our body language will be one big smile.

That day can’t come soon enough. Stay safe, dear people. Stay safe.

Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe