Coronavirus and a Question of Priorities

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Photo: nbcnews.com

Recently, Timor-Leste has been awash in discussions about and countermeasures against the Wuhan coronavirus. In addition to the more immediate and pragmatic measures taken by the government—including Thermal Scanners at the airport and the Ministry of Health’s partnership with the United Nations to prepare against coronavirus—Fundasaun Mahein has also heard deliberations of other approaches, including limiting the international travel of ethnically Chinese Timorese and Chinese migrants, boycotting Chinese-owned businesses, and potentially halting imports. In FM’s view, this means that not one, but two sicknesses are currently threatening Timor-Leste: the coronavirus and the risk of a misguided singling out of the Chinese community.

Certainly the coronavirus presents a very particular threat to Timor-Leste. If the sickness were to enter the nation, a lack of a strong healthcare system and emergency response infrastructure would leave our population exceptionally vulnerable. While the prospect of a pandemic has exposed very real gaps in our nation’s institutions, a fearful side-eyeing of Timor-Leste’s Chinese population risks become a red herring that could not only endanger public health, but which comes atop a worrying tradition of violence against Timor’s Chinese community.

For instance, one doctor at Dili’s Guido Valadares Nation Hospital, Huang Dan, has publicly called for Chinese citizens who recently returned from China isolate themselves for fourteen days—not an unreasonable request, but one that seems better applied to all travelers from China to Timor-Leste, regardless of ethnicity or citizenship. This is underlined by today’s revelation that a member of the F-FDTL national military, who returned on January 19th from a training in Wuhan, has been placed under medical isolation after exhibiting coronavirus symptoms. At the moment, the most likely carrier of coronavirus within Timor-Leste’s shores is a member of our own military, not a Chinese citizen.

Similarly, there is broad public support (to which FM lends its voice) for the repatriation of seventeen Timorese students living and studying in Wuhan—at the very same moment that the head of Parliament Committee PD, Antonio da Conceicão, was responding to rumbles of a temporary ban on Chinese imports. (Coronavirus, as medical experts understand it, is a respiratory illness spread through close contact between people—meaning the risk of contracting the sickness through the purchase of a box of pencils that have slowly meandered to Timor-Leste on a container ship is vanishingly remote.) FM agrees that the students should be brought home safely as soon as possible; it does not agree that fear should allow us to abandon respect for the humanity and dignity of all of our citizens.

After all, the Chinese community in Timor-Leste goes back centuries. Chinese trading ports had already been established in Timor by the fifteenth century, and the Chinese cemetery in Dili traces its founding to a Portuguese land grant in 1889; the city’s Chinese temple followed in 1928. Moreover, nearly all of Timor-Leste’s ethnically Chinese population migrated from the then-Portuguese colony in Macau—an island nowhere near Wuhan (an estimated 95-97% percent are of Hakka descent, with the rest Cantonese). Even among the more recent 4,000 some-odd Chinese migrants in Timor-Leste, there is little to suggest that any great number come from Wuhan, or have even traveled there recently. What there is evidence for is a pattern of violence: first, in 1975, when Indonesia’s invasion saw a continuation of Suharto’s policy of targeting and killing ethnic Chinese for suspected Communism, and then in 1999, 2002, and 2006, when riots saw Chinese-owned businesses targeted for destruction, and forcing many Chinese-Timorese to flee the country.

Fortunately, FM is relieved to note that we have not heard of any instances of coronavirus-related violence against Timor’s Chinese community. However, this is a history of which we must remain aware and wary of; moreover, we cannot allow for a fearful singling out of one ethnic group in Timor-Leste to distract us from far more pressing risks to our nation’s public health.

For instance, while FM appreciates the efforts made at the airport to detect the coronavirus, we have long identified Timor-Leste’s land and water borders as being largely porous and unpatrolled—meaning that any threat to the country extends far beyond the air, and will be far more difficult to detect and control. Moreover, part of what makes the coronavirus threat so uniquely serious in Timor-Leste is our government’s consistent refusal to allocate an adequate amount of the budget to healthcare. As of now, we do not have a healthcare system, medical resources and personnel, or an infrastructure that will allow us to effectively combat coronavirus should it enter Timor-Leste. Beyond this, not enough priority has been given to the education that could have helped our nation to train Timorese doctors; as it stands, many of the international doctors, nurses, and public health experts upon whom Timor relies to treat our citizens will likely be evacuated by their home countries should coronavirus spread in Timor-Leste, right at our moment of greatest need. When we talk about investing in Timor-Leste’s future, this is what we mean. And we have not done it.

While FM hopes that Timor-Leste will weather coronavirus unscathed, we also urge that it acts as a clarion call to our citizens and leaders—so that the next global virus will not find Timor-Leste as vulnerable as it is now.

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