The white privilege behavior of foreigners in Bali is counterproductive and disrespectful

The first thing I read this morning was an article at Voice of America (VOA) Indonesia in bahasa indonesia with the title “‘White Privilege’ and the pros and cons of health protocols in Bali”. A few foreigners are quoted in the article, one of them a Spanish national called Jorge who said he was planning to leave Bali when he heard the news that getting vaccinated against COVID-19 would be an obligation for anyone living on the island. Jorge lives a holistic lifestyle as he calls it. Another foreigner, named Christine in the article, coming from Eastern Europe was quoted saying that wearing a mask is of no use to reduce the rate of transmission. And adding the fact that the cure rate for those infected with COVID-19 is almost 100 percent.

Arif Budiman, the writer of the article, had also asked anthropologist Kelli Swazey for a comment on the issue and she says the refusal of these people to either get vaccinated or wear a mask is “rooted in white privilege”.

Swazey explains how foreigners tend to be given a higher position than local people. As if they don’t have to follow the rules in Bali. And the Balinese are reluctant to say something about it, because they’re afraid of losing their income. The roots of this attitude on both sides stems from colonial times. 

There is so much going on in this article, it’s important to unpack.

  • Firstly, it’s kind of weird to me to be in a country as a guest and not follow the law. Especially the foreigners who don’t live here for a long time most probably don’t pay tax and no one is able to vote for the Indonesian elections. So without contributing to society or being able to influence the policies, the least you can do is follow what the government asks you to do. Imagine for a moment if people of colour would behave this way in our Western societies… 

    Or, as Budiman writes:

    “White people may decide to move to Bali, without having to learn Indonesian, and no one will treat them negatively. People of color who move to predominantly white areas are likely to be criticized.”

  • Secondly, the idea that getting vaccinated is against a holistic lifestyle is wrong. It’s part of a simplified interpretation of what holistic means. If I learned one thing in my studies of holistic health and yoga, it’s that our bodies are way more complex than we think, the mind is much stronger than anything injected in your body and a holistic lifestyle is eventually meant to help you find a way to contribute to a community and not just solely focus on your own wellbeing.

    Ann Friedman made a strong comparison in her latest newsletter:

    There is a through-line here, though: collective action. Vaccination isn’t just about creating a better life for the individual who gets the jab, it’s about collectively sharing the risk and burden in order to affirm and protect the lives of the most vulnerable people in our society. Working against entrenched white supremacy—and its manifestation in police violence—is a similar project. It requires all of us, especially those who are less vulnerable, to recognize that our liberation is bound up with that of the most marginalized. And to act on that recognition so we can all be free.” 

    Besides all this, the lack of knowledge in journalism about concepts like holistic, spiritual and even yoga also creates unbalanced reporting. 
  • Thirdly: is wearing a mask the most important thing to do to prevent COVID-19? No. Is it part of a number of things necessary to do in order to limit new cases? Yes. This is also connected to policy making. Of course, if you drive around on your scooter through the rice fields of Ubud, does a mask make a difference? Probably not. But if you then go to the supermarket where you’re closely engaging with people, does a mask influence in some way the spread of the virus? Yes. It’s kind of hard to make a policy saying: you don’t need a mask in this street, but you need one there.
  • My last point is about the facts. Truth is, coronavirus is new to us, there is a lot we don’t know yet. We learn every day. Putting ourselves in a position as if we know what is exactly going on even though the rest of the world and the expert and scientists don’t know yet, comes from privilege. And the other side of the same coin is the uncertainty we’re dealing with: we want an answer but it’s just not there yet. 

And it’s not only the foreigners in this article who are creating opinions based on incomplete information, it’s also a responsibility of journalists to be able to say: “We don’t know everything about the virus at the moment”.

When we skip the phase of being comfortable in an uncomfortable uncertain situation, we create solutions that aren’t well thought through. Instead of refusing to take the vaccine or not wanting to wear a mask, it’s better to use the energy to make policymakers aware of the needed long term lifestyle changes in our societies. For example by voting on the right party during the elections. 

Because if all the focus goes to superficial acts of disobedience, the policy makers will be busy with handling that instead of putting their time in a healthier society for the future. It’s kind of ironic to realize that the protesters can sometimes be beneficial to the people in power. They distract the attention from root level solutions. And a lot of foreigners in Bali aren’t aware of that. Their privileged behavior is counterproductive. And, above all, it’s disrespectful to the Balinese in this case.