On 4 May, PNTL in coordination with health personnel established a checkpoint outside the police training headquarters in Comoro, Dili. Here they stopped all passing motorists and forced them inside to headquarters to undergo SARS-CoV-2 swab tests. While many people complied, others resisted and demanded to be allowed to leave, causing tension and conflict between the community and police.
Today, 5 May, the Council of Ministers published its decision altering Government Decree 14/2021 (29 April), stating that all individuals residing within Timor-Leste will be required to undergo swab testing, and that “individuals who refuse to undergo this medical examination will be subjected to obligatory prophylactic confinement in health establishment, residence or state isolation centre”.
Fundasaun Mahein believes that this decision is extremely dangerous, for several reasons. First, forcing people to undergo medical procedures against their will contravenes fundamental ethical and human rights principles of informed consent and bodily integrity, and may even violate of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which Timor-Leste is a signatory. It also arguably violates the principles of democratic governance and human rights which are enshrined in the RDTL Constitution.
To quote from the 2009 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health:
“Informed consent is not mere acceptance of a medical intervention, but a voluntary and sufficiently informed decision, protecting the right of the patient to be involved in medical decision-making, and assigning associated duties and obligations to health-care providers. Its ethical and legal normative justifications stem from its promotion of patient autonomy, self-determination, bodily integrity and well-being”
Beyond the question of legality or ethics, this policy also makes little sense practically or logistically. Mass testing of the entire population will use vast amounts of limited state resources. Furthermore, the health authorities’ capacity to carry out and process tests is already limited. We also wonder what the Government plans to do if it finds thousands of positive results – will these people be rounded up and brought to government facilities, or required to ‘isolate’ in crowded homes? What about their families and close contacts?
Finally, Fundasaun Mahein predicts that this program will provoke increased conflict between state authorities and communities. Health authorities and police have already met considerable resistance while attempting to perform testing in communities, and many Timorese people are extremely dissatisfied with the current situation. Many already believe that the Government measures have gone too far and are actively harming their lives, especially affecting people’s ability to carry out essential economic activities. This latest policy will inflame community tensions even further, and will likely result in even greater levels of conflict and socio-political instability.
Therefore, Fundasaun Mahein urge the Government to cancel this planned testing program, and instead focus testing resources on those who present to health centres with symptoms, while at the same time increasing healthcare capacity, ensuring that people can access treatment and providing realistic advice and information to the public.