A woman (R) receives the AstraZeneca vaccine for the Covid-19 coronavirus as military personnel and their families are offered the vaccine at an army camp in Surabaya in Indonesia on March 26, 2021. The neighbouring Timor Leste was safe from Covid-19 until now, but the cases are spiralling in recent weeks. (Photo: Juni Kriswanto / AFP)
Until earlier this month, the Catholic-majority country of Timor-Leste had been praised for its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, while neighboring countries grappled with massive outbreaks.
However, since March 7 there has been a sudden spike in infections which the island nation is struggling to contain and which have spread to several municipalities.
As of March 25, the number of active cases had reached 257, according to the country’s anti-Covid-19 response team -- the Integrated Center for Crisis Management.
The total number of pandemic cases since the initial outbreak last year was 394 with no reported deaths.
With this latest surge, the government has imposed stricter border controls and lockdowns in the capital Dili and the cities of Viqueque and Baucau.
In a cabinet meeting on March 24, President Francisco Guterres Lú Olo also renewed a state of emergency for another 30 days.
According to the country’s anti-Covid team, its current priority is the "rapid detection and isolation of all positive cases."
“It is also intended to increase the capacity of laboratory analysis and contact screening. It is also a priority to prevent the transmission of the virus to other municipalities and to prepare necessary actions to mitigate possible community transmission outbreaks that may exist,” the team said in a recent statement.
The government's attempts to control the virus do face obstacles such as the ignorance of many people about its danger.
Joao Miranda, director of the Integrated Crisis Management Center said “erroneous” posts are being spread on social media claiming the pandemic situation is being politicized by the government.
"We can say that our community still does not have access to enough information proving that Covid-19 is a real thing and is extremely dangerous," he said.
He said he fears community transmissions will occur from the increasing local transmissions.
“If the population is not aware of the health rules and protocols, we may lose all control, which would be very bad, especially since the health system in Timor-Leste is still extremely fragile,” he said.
He said, “we must ignore false rumors that say the pandemic is a political thing, or that it was invented by someone.”
To combat false information, he said the center is currently working with the Ministry of Health and other agencies to spread accurate information to convince and make people aware of the risk the outbreak poses.
As people have difficulty accessing basic needs, the government and the Church are providing assistance.
The cabinet meeting on March 24 made it a national priority to respond, quickly and effectively, to the socio-economic costs and implications of Covid-19, so that people affected are protected from income losses and unemployment and businesses facing difficulties are able to maintain their cash flow and economic activity.
The government is also finalizing support for university students separated from their families and support for frontline personnel fighting the virus.
"It is also a priority to acquire vaccines and start giving shots so that we can have the population immunized as soon as possible," a government statement said.
Meanwhile, the Church has also begun taking steps.
Apart from continuing to stress the importance of maintaining health protocols, Dili Archdiocese has also started distributing basic necessities to vulnerable groups.
“The work is being done by religious and nuns. It started on March 21 and is still continuing," said Father Angelo Salshina, chairman of Dili Archdiocese's Covid-19 pastoral support team.
He said, on March 25, the archdiocese also initiated safe funeral training involving volunteers and medical personnel, in case people start dying from the virus.
Support is also coming in from other countries.
During a meeting with Prime Minister, Taur Matan Ruak on March 25, U.S. Ambassador Kevin Blackstone said that the United States would donate US$ 1.6 million towards the fight against Covid-19.
On March 23, health-protective equipment from New Zealand arrived in the country.
Despite these efforts to deal with the pandemic, the Church and government say the key is once again to maintain discipline with health protocols.
"We hope everyone will jump on board and try to prevent it from getting worse," said Father Salshina.