A policeman asks motorists to observe social distancing rules amid the Covid-19 outbreak in Timor-Leste capital Dili in May. (Photo: Valentino Dariell De Sousa/AFP)
Toward the end of June, the tiny Catholic-majority Southeast Asian nation of Timor-Leste ended its Covid-19 state of emergency.
While Taiwan, New Zealand and until recently Hong Kong, South Korea and Australia have rightly been lauded for their efforts at bringing the coronavirus under control — and Southeast Asian mainland countries Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia have also kept the pandemic at bay — Timor-Leste stands out as not having, so far, a single case of community transmission.
As of Aug. 21, Timor-Leste had 26 coronavirus cases, with only one active — all imported — and no deaths.
The government of the impoverished nation with a threadbare health system moved quickly toward the end of March to impose the emergency rules, in line with the timing of its wealthy southern neighbor Australia but with more stringent rules than most Australian states.
“In view of the declaration of a state of emergency, the government through this decree ensures its implementation by adopting the necessary measures that prevent the disease, contain the pandemic, save lives and ensure the subsistence of supply chains of essential goods and services for our population, even if they may limit some fundamental rights and freedoms,” the official decree said.
Shortly after the state of emergency was lifted, the country reopened its international borders — including its land border with the Indonesian province of East Nusa Tenggara — with the proviso that there would be a two-week quarantine for incoming passengers and all incoming goods would be disinfected.
People who have been in quarantine in Timor-Leste appear to have had good experiences if Jesuit priest Father Erik Gerilla is anything to go by. The Filipino priest, who formerly ran Jesuit Social Services in Timor-Leste, returned for a visit in June.
“As soon as we arrived at the airport, our bodies with clothes on are sprayed including the soles of our shoes. To be able to fly or travel by land to Timor, one has to be tested negative from Covid-19. A 14-day quarantine is obligatory for all travelers and their hotels and facilities are quite comfortable and well managed. The health officials come every day to monitor if we develop symptoms,” he wrote on his Facebook page
“On a scale so small compared to other Asian countries, you would expect that their systems should be manageable. But the intentionality and deliberateness of the efforts to contain transmission of the virus from overseas are really missing in many other countries.”
Up until now, despite the virus being widespread in neighboring Indonesia, the country’s one-time colonial master, Timor-Leste has managed to keep free of the disease in the region’s singular biggest triumph. This includes outbreaks in the Indonesian half of the island of Timor.
“The government responded early to the Covid-19 pandemic and closed its borders in mid-March — firstly to non-citizens and, soon after, to everyone,” a group of academics from the University of Melbourne wrote.
“Those Timorese citizens who remained overseas (mostly students, those working in low-skilled occupations in the UK, Ireland and South Korea, or seasonal workers in Australia) were offered support to stay abroad.”
Timorese received support packages including soap, eggs and rice from non-government agencies and the private sector. Households earning under US$500 a month were eligible for a monthly subsidy of $100 from the government. The border with Indonesia was patrolled by authorities who enforced the closure and stay-at-home orders.
Still, like everywhere that has seen a lockdown of any scale, it has not come without its costs. Timor-Leste is fast approaching a future where the oil and gas revenues that have underpinned its economy are set to end, with rights to fresh undersea energy fields that the country acquired in recent years stuck in the pre-development phase. The accessing of $100 million from its sovereign wealth Petroleum Fund is significant.
Indeed, researchers at the Australian National University found that Timor-Leste has splashed out far more on its Covid-19 response than any of its Pacific neighbors at 8.3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), closer to Australia’s 9.5 percent than Papua New Guinea’s 0.8 percent. Timor-Leste’s response was almost 100 percent self-funded; it has received little Covid-19 aid despite being ranked 20th in aid-dependent nations globally.
As elsewhere, women and children have tended to suffer more tangibly with lockdown situations in terms of increased domestic violence and missing out on face-to-face education.
“In Timor-Leste 59 percent of ever-partnered women between the ages of 15-45 have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. This is likely to increase as security, health and money worries put more stress on confined households,” the International Women’s Development Agency said.
But the correct calculus by Timor-Leste’s leaders has been that a nationwide outbreak would have devastated a country that has only the bare bones of a healthcare system.
For that, its people who have all played their part in this remarkable story should be thankful.