Even as much of the world remains shut down to combats the Covid-19 pandemic, life in Timor-Leste is slowly beginning to return to normal. Fundasaun Mahein is deeply grateful and relieved that there have been no coronavirus deaths within the country, and that no new cases have been confirmed in nearly three weeks. This possible containment of the virus in Timor-Leste is a testament to the effectiveness of quick, decisive action, such as the government’s decisions to institute a State of Emergency; to close the nation’s borders; to create the Integrated Crisis Management Center; and to pursuing contact tracing and quarantine to contain with virus, in compliance with World Health Organization recommendations. That these measures appear to be succeeding also speaks volumes to the strength and resilience of our citizens, many of whom have demonstrated exceptional forbearance in the face of the State of Emergency and quarantine.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic’s course is far from over, and this time may prove to have been a reprieve, rather than a resolution. While Timor-Leste has done much to be proud of in the month and a half since the declaration of the State of Emergency, the Emergency has also exposed societal cracks that, should the coronavirus begin to spread again, could become deadly chasms. These were put achingly on display in the April 22nd GMN TV interview with the sobbing Xefe Aldea Licara Poma of Hudi Laran, Antonia Manuel Soares, who feared that rice and food shortages, exacerbated by an inability to work under the State of Emergency, put his community under threat of starvation. In speaking with FM, one Dili resident who had returned to his family’s home in Lautem cited his reasons as being rooted in economics, not health: while the fear that he might be an unwitting vector for the coronavirus had initially discouraged him from leaving the city and returning to his family, an inability to work in Dili under the State of Emergency ultimately forced him to leave.
This story is in many ways emblematic of the wrenching choices facing our citizens. While many are doing all they can to comply with social distancing and public health guidelines, for our most vulnerable this means risking their health in other ways, including their family’s ability to eat. FM is in no way advocating for a reduction in social distancing measures or a premature opening of our nation. Given Timor-Leste’s largely unguarded border with Indonesia and the fury with which the pandemic continues to spread around the world, we must accept that the virus’s return to Timor-Leste is not just a possibility, but a probability. Yet if even as tightly controlled an outbreak as Timor-Leste’s twenty-four quarantined cases can result in beggars on the street and a Xefe Aldea weeping on national television, then the destruction that would result from communal spread is nearly unthinkable.
There has been much talk of how the State might soften the virus’s economic blow to average citizens, but little movement. Writing for the Diplomat, acting Minister Coordinator of Economic Affairs, Fidelis Magalhães, proposed a number of government measures to expand the social safety net, including agricultural subsidies, provisioning staple foods for families, and the much-discussed cash payments for families whose members earn less than $500 a month: admirable measures that have yet to materialize (although a $15 electricity subsidy for all households has been distributed). The cash payment was announced on April 20th, nearly a month after the enactment of the State of Emergency, and was welcomed as a lifeline by many Timorese; however, the date and manner of its distribution remains disturbingly unclear. With some 65% of Timorese working in the informal sector—a number that, as even the most cursory glance around Taibesi Market shows, disproportionately slants towards women—even this delay can spell disaster.
Timor-Leste is by no means the only nation struggling to balance economic activity with public health. However, with discussions of how to handle the virus dominated by developed nations, Timor-Leste has had, in many ways, to chart its own path, one where the stakes are monumentally higher. With our fragile health system and a population that already suffers from staggering rates of tuberculosis, malnutrition, other coronavirus risk factors, and a recent dengue outbreak, a communal spread of the coronavirus could rip like wildfire through our country. At the same time, for the people of Timor-Leste, starvation is neither an impossibility nor even a distant memory. These two outcomes are not contrasting choices, but two sides of the same coin: a poor and malnourished population faces increased susceptibility to the virus, even as desperate people are the ones most likely to break lockdown and quarantine—it is no coincidence that the most serious clashes between police and the public during the State of Emergency have been over economic activity, such as the destruction of vegetable sellers’ stalls at Tasi Tolu and protests by taxi and mikrolet drivers. For too many in Timor-Leste, there is no choice between safe and unsafe, healthy and unhealthy, or surviving and dying. Poverty spreads the virus, and the virus spreads poverty. Any attempt to prevent one must address the other.
These three weeks since the last Covid-19 diagnosis have not given us salvation, but they have given us time. It is with disappointment and anger, then, that FM has seen the loosening of tension over the pandemic accompanied by an immediate devolution into political infighting, rather than a concerted effort to prepare for a return of the coronavirus to Timorese shores. Today’s delays are tomorrow’s deaths. While organizations and individuals have contributed to relief efforts, the government’s own response—especially the promised cash payments—remains muddled, even as more emergency money is drawn from the petroleum fund. Instances of police brutality and overreach under the State of Emergency have gone largely unaddressed, and Tatoli has repeatedly published articles on the slipshod and potentially lethal quarantine conditions in Dili and at Batugade. These questions, along with the terrifying issue of how Timorese will remain afloat under an extended lockdown, are vital if Timor-Leste hopes to keep its good fortune and contain a future outbreak. This, rather than political shuffling, must be our focus if our people are to have better options than starvation or disease.