East Timor

Observations and Reflections on COVID-19 in Timor-Leste

Dr. Chen, Li-Li
Department of Political Science, Faculty of Social Sciences, Universidade Nacional Timor Lorosa’e
East Timor

Observations and Reflections on COVID-19 in Timor-Leste

Timor-Leste’s first positive case was discovered on 21 March, 2020, triggering fear and panic in the population. This consequently led to the fast approval of a state of emergency or lockdown to deal with a possible worst-case scenario where one third of the population might contract COVID-19 leading to the death of up to 3 percent (Government of Timor-Leste, April 16, 2020). The country’s weak healthcare system could have been paralyzed, since there are only 3300 medical personnel, and six intensive care units capable of treating COVID-19 patients nationwide (Gardner, 2018; World Bank, 2020). A state of emergency commenced on 28 March, followed by several health security measures, such as a compulsory fourteen-day quarantine period, good hygiene practice, social distancing, limited assembly, border closures and a travel ban (The Oekusi Post, 21 April 2020). Most foreign nationals were flown out to their home countries to avoid any outbreak and most Timorese in Dili chose to return to their villages. The streets were empty; the beaches were clean; the shops were closed; the whole town was quiet. Dili, the city which I have considered as my second home since I moved there in 2018, felt like another world.

Before COVID-19, I barely stayed at home during the day due to work. I would be with friends and families. As a Taiwanese junior lecturer, and woman living in Timor-Leste, I have to work hard and mingle with Timorese on a daily basis. However, my life has been transformed since the outbreak of the pandemic. Most of the time I prefer to stay in, with occasional visits to families and markets. My life simply revolved around my small apartment and my cellphone which kept me informed of things. The media and social media were flooded with images of patients and bodies as well as fake news. Daily conversation was full of updated health-related policies, numbers, and information concerning COVID-19 as well as news on what you are going to eat. The Internet became a crucial medium to satisfy ourselves. At the beginning of the state of emergency, I was always anxious because I felt that I had lost my freedom and control over my life. Soon after this, I became used to my new norm. Once in a while someone would call me “corona” when I walked down the street. But, I am not Chinese but Taiwanese. COVID-19 has not only reshaped my life but also affected Timor-Leste in many areas, such as education, culture, economy, society, and politics.

One noticeable thing that occurred what that the Coronavirus has suddenly digitalized higher education in Timor-Leste due to school closures nationwide. A few days after the declaration of the state of emergency, the university where I teach declared that it would close for a month starting from 24 March with another month of extension (UNTL, 2020). There was no free Wi-Fi coverage nor any online courses available on campus before the pandemic. The semester continued yet all classes had to go online within one week. Short notice, a lack of experience in online teaching, and a lack of fast and stable internet, technology and telecommunication infrastructure meant that the everything quickly overwhelmed teachers and students (Chen, 2020). Teachers were forced to suspend courses, or to carry out online learning without any additional support, not to mention they had to pay for the internet out of their own pockets. Students were protesting the policy of online learning because most of them did not have money to buy food or internet credit, some did not have laptops, smart phones nor Android apps, and some lived in remote and rural areas where internet is slow and expensive and electricity scarce. A few of them could participate in online courses because they borrowed someone else’s phone or laptop. The transition from physical to virtual classroom was painful. I do not have children, but I found myself constantly juggling between work and housework, feeling worried, and dealing with students’ confusion and questions which kept coming in from early morning until late at night. Working from home has a new definition: working 24/7 with my pajamas on.

To date, COVID-19 has not threatened Timor-Leste severely in terms of morbidity. The country has a record of zero deaths and 24 confirmed cases (Worldmeters, 21 May, 2020). However, the coronavirus has reshaped Timorese culture, embodied through indigenous practices and knowledge. Most Timorese cultural rituals require mass participation, which has been prevented due to the Coronavirus. The Catholic church canceled regular mass and services, while cultural activities with mass gatherings were suspended (Tatoli, 29 March, 2020). In Timor-Leste, people like playing bingo during the funerals. However, during the lockdown, public gatherings of more than 5 people were banned which led to the postponement or cancellations of funerals. Some people complained that their culture is disappearing because they cannot practice their rituals. People who followed the stay-at-home order began playing bingo to kill time during the state of emergency. In spite of these changes, some parts of Timorese culture remained crucial in protecting communities from coronavirus in their local contexts, although they did not necessarily follow social distancing orders. For example, at the outset of the lockdown, traditional leaders and local authorities along with the government representatives organized a cultural ceremony to ask God, ancestors, and nature to cleanse Dili of the coronavirus (Tatoli, 29 March, 2020). Through a sacred ritual, traditional leaders would know whether the coronavirus would enter Timor-Leste to harm the people and the nation through the color of a chicken’s liver. Compared to matters of the cultural realm, the fallout of COVID-19 in economic and social terms is more profound and vexing.

Economically, the World Bank has stated that the economy this year will decline by 5 percent (World Bank, 2020). The Petroleum Fund, which constitute the majority of the state budget, shrunk and lost $1.8 billion due to a plummeting international stock market and oil prices sending them to a historical low. This will affect public spending driving the economy directly (Lusa, 27 March, 2020). Tax returns will also diminish since businesses have had to shut down or decrease business hours to economize (World Bank, 2020). Tourism-related businesses, such as hotels and restaurants, have been hit hard due to a travel ban and stay-at-home order, while shops and markets have struggled to maintain their businesses in spite of the reduced numbers of customers and revenue. In Dili, at least 25 hotels were transformed into quarantine venues, while most restaurants, shops and markets shut down early. Workers in the formal and informal sector have found it difficult to sustain themselves and their families due to a loss of income and employment, which may decrease their purchasing power in staple food and other necessities (Tempo Timor, 11 April, 2020). To date, the Union Confederation of Timor-Leste registered 102 cases involving 364 workers mostly involving problems relating to wages and unemployment (Tatoli, 19 May, 2020). I also encountered one woman asking for money in the supermarket because she did not have money to buy rice for her family, women selling vegetables and fruits because they ran out of money to buy milk for their children, market vendors worrying about contracting coronavirus but needing to go out and earn money, and farmers facing hardship to access to the market and sell their produce during the lockdown. The economic effect of COVID-19 has been felt deeply by businesses, workers and communities.

Within Timorese society, many communities are reporting that they are starving because they do not have sufficient food. Ironically, government members have repetitively ensured that the stock of staple food, especially rice, is enough (Presidency of the Council of Ministers, 2020). The real issue is accessibility to food. Communities have had difficulties in accessing food because of a lack of transportation to access to the market or no money to purchase foods (STL, 2020). Most of my students’ parents are farmers in rural areas, but they cannot sell their corns and vegetables because they do not have any transportation to bring their produce to the markets. They need to pay $150 to rent a truck. Sometimes the market has been closed which has led to quickly draining their savings. The result is heartbreaking. Some have to eat corn for survival, some have to scavenge the trash, some have to skip daily meals to sustain themselves, and some have to beg their neighbors and families for help with staple foods and necessities. For those who have lost their livelihood during the lockdown, they will need immediate support in cash or in kind for survival. Failing to respond to their needs swiftly and effectively might lead to a weakened immune system compounded by the double risk of malnutrition or disease. As of the time of writing, the promised $100 subsidy per household is yet to be received by Timorese people. Many businesses, civil society organizations, churches, and community-based groups were the first responders to communities who needed help desperately (UCA News, 2020).

Timorese people applying social distancing in a crowded local market in Taibesi, Dili, Timor-Leste. Source: Author

Economic pressure compounded by the stay-at-home order has also exposed women to risks of mental stress or domestic violence. Timorese women often hold the traditional role of caregivers and feed and take care of family members. Due to school closures, many women and young girls have been confined to and burdened with domestic care work such as cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, and taking care of children, the sick, and the elders. Women in rural areas might also need to attend to fields where they grow crops as well as livestock. Some of my friends and families in Timor-Leste not only fear the coronavirus affecting their families, but also feel stressed by constrained income, heavy care workloads, and the uncertainty of the future. Moreover, cases of domestic violence have occurred. One Timorese sister who works in PRADET (Psychological Recovery & Development in Timor-Leste) often received messages about new reports of domestic violence from her office during the state of emergency. Timor-Leste, where 59 percent of women have experiences of domestic violence has one of the highest gender-based violence rates in the world (The Asia Foundation, 2016). While women are confined to stay with their aggressors during the state of emergency, feeling stressed and isolated, they become vulnerable to mental illness and domestic violence.

Additionally, political uncertainty and instability is worryingly exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. Although the national parliament approved a $250 million fund for tacking COVID-19, it has failed to address the fear and distrust among its members as well as the conflict between the president and the national parliament (Tempo Timor, 2020). In fact, politicians may use this crisis to seize the opportunity to advance their political objectives. The Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak withdrew his resignation letter from the President since the country needed him to tackle coronavirus (Straitstimes, 2020). On 19 May, most deputies broke the desk of the president of the national parliament, Arão Noé Amaral, and replaced him with a new president from a new election (Tatoli, 2020). Meanwhile, the conflict between Congresso Nacional de Reconstrução de Timor (CNRT) and the President belonging to Frente Revolucionária de Timor-Leste Independente (FRETLIN) dating back to 2018, has continued and has been exacerbated after an appeal from CNRT bringing the president to the court was dismissed. CNRT has called for its members serving in the current government to resign from the Council of Ministers. The fragile political alliances and continuous tension between the president and the national parliament not only repeatedly failed the passage of state budget, but also hindered political consensus and collective efforts to forge a response to COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic seems and feels surreal, but it is affecting all aspects of life ranging from the personal to educational, cultural, economic, social, and political here in Timor-Leste. In spite of the efforts of the government to contain the virus, Timor-Leste needs to tackle the political, social, and economic challenges deepening preexisting inequities within the society, where the poor and vulnerable groups struggle the most. These unintended consequences could further damage human capital if the government does not have a long-term plan and resolution to mitigate them. The COVID-19 pandemic may change the way we live and work, but we might just end up creating a worse version of the current world if many of the least fortunate cannot be protected and empowered in the immediate and long term. It is time for all of us to use the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to reflect, re-envision, and restructure current preparedness and response plans in order to better protect Timorese people from the threat of COVID-19 and others to come.

21 May, 2020




Dr. Li-Li Chen is a current lecturer at the Department of Political Science, Faculty of Social Sciences, Universidade Nacional Timor Lorosa’e of Timor-Leste. She had a Ph.D. from the University of Florida in 2018. Her research interests include the dynamics of gender and peacekeeping, gender and development, as well as politics in Southeast Asia with a particular focus on Timor-Leste. Her latest publication “Human Rights and Democracy Amidst Militarized COVID-19 Responses in Southeast Asia” is accessible at: https://tinyurl.com/yc65kh8s


Chen, Li-Li. 2020. “Observations and Reflections on COVID-19 in Timor-Leste” CSEAS NEWSLETTER, 78: TBC.