11 Apr 2021

Timor-Leste faces new challenge amid Covid-19 pandemic

11:25 am on 11 April 2021

Already facing the threat of a new coronavirus outbreak, the tiny nation of Timor-Leste has been hit by devastating flooding and landslides.

According to authorities, the Easter weekend deluge claimed the lives of at least 40 people including a dozen children, destroyed houses, roads, bridges and left the capital Dili under water.

This general view shows homes surrounded by floodwaters in the village of Haitimuk in East Flores on April 4, 2021, after flash floods and landslides swept eastern Indonesia and neighbouring East Timor.

Photo: AFP

While the country welcomed the arrival of the first batch of vaccines on Monday, the government reported its first Covid-related death - a 44-year-old woman who had been undergoing treatment for the infection in Dili.

Timor-Leste, formerly East Timor, is a Southeast Asian nation with a population of 1.3 million people.

Landmarks in Dili speak to the country's struggles for independence from Portugal in 1975 and then Indonesia in 2002.

In 1999, following the UN-sponsored act of self-determination, Indonesia relinquished control of the territory.

As Timor-Leste, it became the first new sovereign state of the 21st century on 20 May 2002.

It has close ties with its Pacific neighbours - on the east and western parts of the island, there are Polynesian and Melanesian enclaves.

Last weekend, these communities were among several hit with heavy rain brought on by a cyclone in nearby Indonesia.

Dili's population of 220,000 was ordered into lockdown along with Baucau and Viqueque cities last month following an increase in community transmission of the coronavirus.

Security expert José Souza-Santos is from Timor Leste and is the Policy Fellow at the Australia Pacific Security College.

He said it's been a tough week for his people.

"We come from the eastern tip of Timor which is made of people of polynesian and melanesian descent.

'I still have a number of nephews who were evacuated to just outside of Dili. Unfortunately, we don't know what has actually happened to them.

"People are quite nervous and scared. Nobody wants to leave their homes mainly because of fear of an infection from Covid but also because this has been such a traumatising event."

José Souza-Santos

José Souza-Santos Photo: Supplied

Floods exacerbate Covid challenge

Timor-Leste now has 765 Covid cases with 472 active cases isolated in hospitals.

Souza-Santos said up until the floods last weekend, the government was able to successfully contain the virus.

He said since then, the government was trying to separate the thousands of displaced residents at evacuation centres in a bid to contain the virus.

"The floods have exacerbated the situation on the ground.

"The government had utilised and employed a very strict regiment of contact tracing and was able to contain the virus to the three major cities.

"With the floods, the lockdowns became ineffective as the law and enforcement and other agencies which were tasked to maintain these lockdowns were more focussed on the emergency response to the floods.

On Wednesday, Timor Leste launched its vaccination program following the arrival of 24,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine through the COVAX initiative.

UNICEF's representative in Dili, Bilal Durrani, said front-line workers and those vulnerable to infections would get the first jab.

"We expected more vaccines. But the plan is to have at least in the first half of the year 100,800 vaccines to be delivered to Timor-Leste so that resulted in slightly lower doses that we received in the first batch.

"But we are very hopeful that we'll receive the remaining doses in the middle of year and the rest of the 20 percent at the end of the year."

Durrani said the challenge now for the government was to continue to ensure and encourage its people to get vaccinated.

"There were alot of questions around on whether the vaccines are effective, what are the side effects.

"There were alot of doubts about it so we used all the scientific data to communicate that message.

"The government and its development partners have been running a campaign about the vaccines.

"UNICEF has helped produce materials and brochures, we were also using TV and radio."

Bilal Durrani meets locals in Dili.

Bilal Durrani meets locals in Dili. Photo: Supplied/UNICEF

Call for assistance

Meanwhile, the government is seeking international help following the catastrophic floods that have killed dozens and left thousands of its people homeless.

New Zealand stands ready to consider any requests for assistance from Timor-Leste or Indonesia.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Nanaia Mahuta, is co-ordinating New Zealand's efforts to ensure the support for the Timorese people.

In a statement, MFAT said NZ had made $150,000 funding available through its embassy in Dili to help with the initial response to the flooding.

How this funding will be allocated is still being worked through, the ministry said. But some of it would would go towards provisions of food and shelter for affected families.

Last month, New Zealand provided 4.8 tonnes of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE and sufficient to treat 500 Covid cases) to Timor-Leste to assist with the surge of Covid cases, MFAT said.

Mahuta's office confirmed she had an introductory telephone call on 6 April with her Timor-Leste counterpart Adaljiza Albertina Xavier Reis Magno.

It said Mahuta had emphasised New Zealand's assistance and expressed her condolences to those affected.

Mahuta and Magno discussed the two countries' bilateral relationship, where Timor-Leste is an important bilateral and development partner.

They also discussed their pandemic response, the New Zealand Aid Programme, the importance of strong multilateralism and the situation in Myanmar.

Earlier, Australia's government said it was concerned about the risk of water-borne diseases as well as shortages of clean water and food in Timor-Leste, which lies to Australia's north.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Australia also stands ready to provide more assistance to its neighbour.

Meanwhile in Timor-Leste, government officials and NGOs were scrambling to work out the full extent of the damage where raging waters and mudslides had swept away houses, destroyed roads and carried away bridges.


.. Photo: Supplied/UNICEF