By Dr Sarina Kilham, Lecturer in agricultural extension and rural sociology in the Charles Sturt University School of Agricultural and Wine Sciences and member of the Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation, and Xylia Ingham, Country Director Health Alliance International (HAI) Timor-Leste. Sarina and Xylia have both lived and worked in Timor-Leste since 2001.
Timor-Leste is a small nation perched on the edge of Indonesia and close enough to Australia that it is said you can see the city lights of Darwin twinkling on a clear night.
This Sunday 30 August will mark 21 years since the referendum for independence that saw widespread post-vote destruction, killings and forced mass migration as Indonesia-backed militia rebelled against the ‘yes’ outcome.
Australia’s relationship with Timor-Leste has been a double-edged sword. In Australia, we mostly like the news stories that hail Australia as Timor-Leste’s hero, friend and saviour.
Less palatable are the revelations that Australia spied on Timor-Leste to gain financial advantage in oil and gas negotiations, and that Australia actively opposed an internationally renowned medical training program in Timor-Leste because it was delivered by Cuba.
In fact, the Cuban medical training program has seen more than 1,000 Timorese trained as medical doctors - a threefold increase between 2003 and 2017, and possibly been the key to Timor Leste’s success in mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
Timor-Leste Government response to COVID-19
The Government of Timor-Leste was quick to respond to the COVID-19 threat and unanimously declared a State of Emergency on Friday 27 March to enable a national lock-down.
The Ministry of Health immediately established internal committees and an inter-ministerial commission, basing their response on the World Health Organisation COVID-19 guidelines.
Aware of the destructive nature of fear-mongering, a formal communication centre between government and journalists was set up and was coupled with a specialist team to manage Facebook rumours and quash them.
The COVID-19 Media Centre provided daily updates on the number of infected people, deaths, and those in quarantine. As of Saturday 22 August, the number of known cases of people in Timor-Leste with positive COVID-19 results stands at 26 people and zero deaths.
Why has Timor-Leste been so successful?
There are a number of factors that underlie Timor-Leste’s success in mitigating against COVID-19: the presence of trained medical staff (doctors, nurses, midwives) based in rural and regional areas;
a government experienced in crisis management and public health challenges; a population that has trusted their government and that has largely been compliant with the State of Emergency restrictions; and finally, the willingness to put aside political differences to ensure stability for public health efforts.
For this success, the Timorese have themselves to thank.
Time for Australia to let go of the ‘White Saviour’ view of Timor-Leste
While there has been Australian support for the Timor-Leste COVID-19 response, primarily in the form of medical training and goods, and Australia is a valued partner in development, it is really time that we let go of a white saviour view of Timor-Leste.
Australia has regularly undermined (trigger warning: this link contains graphic images) Timor-Leste in its quest for independence; attempted to cover-up our less savoury involvement, and openly opposed internal Timorese policies when they didn’t align with our international aid vision for the region.
When Timor-Leste managed 100 days COVID-19-free we heard hardly a peep about this achievement, while New Zealand’s 100 days COVID-19-free was lauded in the Australian papers.
There remain challenges for Timor-Leste in mitigating COVID-19. Widespread testing is yet to be implemented and the impacts of a second wave on the economy and ensuring a coordinated public health response are challenges nation-states across the globe are struggling with.
Yet, it is good to remember in the past 21 years since their historical vote for independence, the Timorese have shown resilience, ingenuity and worked hard to build the nation that many dreamed of and sacrificed their lives for.
COVID-19 has been the latest challenge for the people of Timor-Leste, but it is their own resilience and sense of community and pride in nationhood that has proved vital to their success in mitigating COVID-19 so far, and that will hold them in good stead.