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Timor Leste

Defying the odds: Timor-Leste's battle with Covid-19

With help from the Church, the tiny Catholic nation has led the way in combating the coronavirus

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Defying the odds: Timor-Leste's battle with Covid-19

Archbishop Virgilio do Carmo da Silva, watched by Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak (right), speaks to media after their meeting in Dili to discuss the Covid-19 pandemic on April 28. (Photo: Thomas Ora/UCA News)

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With most of the world fighting an uphill battle against the coronavirus, which has now claimed more than one million lives, tiny nation Timor-Leste, it seems, has successfully overcome the pandemic.

Despite one new infection recorded on Sept. 29, making a total of 28 cases — all imported — since its first case appeared in March, Timor-Leste has outshone other Southeast Asian countries, as well as developed ones, with its very low infection record and no deaths.

The country’s ability to contain the virus right from the beginning was certainly the result of a quick response from its civil leaders and the resilience of about 1.3 million Timorese people, who are predominantly Catholic and traditionally listen to what church leaders say.

Full backing from church leaders has made the government measures run more smoothly and effectively.

President Francisco Guterres Lu-Olo said in a message to world leaders at the UN’s 75th General Assembly last week that the country’s success was due to immediate restrictions imposed by his administration after the first Covid-19 case was detected on March 21.

Measures taken included immediate closing the borders with Indonesia, establishing quarantine and isolation units, and dispatching teams to educate communities about the disease. Lu-Olo said that none of those infected ever needed intensive care.

A rigid month-long state of emergency was enforced from March 28 to April 26, just a week after the first case was discovered and was later extended.

President Lu Olo thanked foreign partners and the World Health Organization for their support in the country’s efforts against the coronavirus during and after the state of emergency.

It would have been awkward to thank the Catholic Church at the global forum. But it should be noted that even before the president declared a state of emergency, Archbishop Virgilio do Carmo da Silva of Dili had instructed his priests to suspend public Masses and other church activities just hours after the government had confirmed the country’s first Covid-19 infection — a Timorese returning from overseas.

The suspension covered the Way of the Cross and Lenten programs. It later included Holy Week celebrations, particularly the Good Friday devotion called Senor Morto or Dead Lord that usually attracts thousands of pilgrims.

The prelate had also instructed Catholics not to use holy water at church entrances, avoid kissing statues or any form of physical contact with fellow churchgoers.

He said he did so, even though the government had not asked him to, as an act of solidarity with the universal Church and Pope Francis, who announced in mid-March that the Vatican would celebrate Easter without the attendance of the faithful.

In his Easter message, Archbishop Da Silva called on Catholics to put aside their personal interests and unite in fighting the pandemic by following the health rules set by the country’s Covid-19 task force.

The Catholic Church’s support did not stop at halting church activities or calling on the faithful to be resilient. It also led the way in the distribution of aid to families.

A pastoral task force, consisting of priests, religious and laypeople, was formed to offer counseling and spiritual assistance. Its social arm, Caritas Timor-Leste, also distributed aid to the people.

The suspension of church activities in Dili Archdiocese, followed later by Baucau and Maliana, was lauded as a crucial decision that proved to be effective in preventing the virus from being transmitted in church communities.

The immediate closure of commercial centers, schools, churches and other public places has so far saved a poverty-stricken nation, with a shortage of medical professionals and health facilities, from the ravages caused by the virus.

It is a completely different scenario in neighboring Indonesia with its crippling bureaucracy, where the government took more than a month following the first infections being detected to impose social restrictions.

Jakarta, for instance, imposed large-scale social restrictions on April 10 despite the first two cases being discovered in early March in Depok on the outskirts of the national capital.

By then it was too late — the coronavirus had already infiltrated and was silently infecting and killing people with uncontrollable cruelty.

If Timor-Leste’s civil and religious leaders were not on the same page, which they weren’t in Indonesia when some religious leaders ignored social restrictions that resulted in clusters, the suffering would not be much different from its former colonizer, or even worse, considering its inadequate health facilities.

At the end of September, while other developed nations continued to register new peaks, Timor Leste had almost won its battle against the coronavirus.

Final victory will only be achieved if its church and political leaders maintain the solidarity they have forged so far.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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