On April 4, Tropical Cyclone Seroja hit Timor-Leste, devastating the island nation and resulting in the worst floods in 48 years. According to the United Nations, the natural disaster took 45 lives, affected 25,709 families, and destroyed 4,546 houses, forcing nearly 10,000 people to seek shelter in the capital Dili. It also destroyed critical infrastructures such as roads and bridges, schools and hospitals, and private housing to the level that one would imagine. In other municipalities, residents and local media outlets also reported the widespread destruction of livestock, rice fields, coffee plantations, and farms.
In responding to the calamities, people in Dili and around the world manifested their solidarity through donations, voluntary work, and in kind support to those affected. Several groups initiated online fundraising activities to mobilize the resources and several longstanding friends have made their significant contribution to the cause. Timorese, on their own initiative, have organized others to help each other from what they are left with. Timorese overseas workers in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and South Korea have also coordinated their own contributions through various channels. Numerous humanitarian posts and kitchens have been established in Dili to provide ready and nutritious daily meals for the displaced and other affected people in the capital.
President Francisco Guterres has called for unity in action, while the government has declared an emergency for the month of April and called for international support. The government mobilized resources and machinery to repair roads and bridges that were badly destroyed by the cyclone and to begin cleaning up some residential areas. Developments partners have also responded to the government’s call, with Australia, the United States, China, Japan, the European Union, Portugal, and South Korea (among others) expressing their readiness to contribute.
The current flooding is taking place in the most challenging circumstances in Timor-Leste’s short history as an independent nation, in which the country is struggling to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and to drag its economy out of several years of recession. The natural disaster has obviously complicated efforts to contain the virus, throwing public health measures into disarray. As of April 15, the country had reported 1,138 cases of COVID-19 and two deaths, spread across all municipalities, 96 percent of which were identified since January. Between April 5 and 11 alone, when the people were making efforts to provide humanitarian support for the victims of the natural disaster, the Integrated Center for Crisis Management reported 324 new cases. In the meantime, the significant increase in COVID-19 cases and the lockdown makes it extremely challenging to mobilize the emergency and humanitarian support outside of Dili, where victims are in the most dire need of support.
The sharp increase of COVID-19 cases over the past two months stands in stark contrast to 2020, during which Timor-Leste recorded just 44 cases and zero deaths. The country started to experience a significant spike in the infection rate in March, primarily in Dili, and the government has responded with a lockdown in the capital. One positive is that the reported cases are mostly asymptomatic and do not require extensive treatment. In the meantime, with the help of the global COVAX facility, the country began rolling out its vaccination campaign on April 7.
According to the most recent news, Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak has already already spoken with the Australian government about assistance in the fight against COVID-19. In response, Canberra restated its commitment to provide support its neighboring countries in the region, adding, “Timor-Leste is a priority due to a sharp increase in community transmission.” The worry is that the virus might reach aging populations or those with preexisting health conditions in rural and remote areas long before the vaccine does.
COVID-19 and Tropical Cyclone Seroja are two separate challenges with different natures that require different policy responses. Yet, both are examples of the types of threats to human security that Timor-Leste needs to take more seriously. Both have deprived people in every dimension, making it harder for the country to recover after the economic recessions of 2017, 2018, and 2020. COVID-19 and the associated public health measures have had tremendous impacts on the economy and on people’s livelihoods, making it harder for the people to cope and leaving them with very few or no options to survive. In some municipalities, the lockdown and disruption to supply chains have triggered increases in the price of food and other essential items. And even prior to the pandemic, very few decent jobs and sources of stable income were available, forcing many to turn to informal economic activities to help them cope with the rapidly changing economic and social landscape. Lacking secure jobs and a stable income, when the lockdown was imposed they were among those worst affected.
The cyclone and the floods have made things much worse for Timorese. In affected areas, they have deprived people in every aspect, making it more challenging to implement public health measures. At this point, thousands of people remain without a roof over their heads, and are depending on contributions from other Timorese and the global solidarity movement in order to survive. This is an instance of the threats that climate change and extreme weather events pose to island nations like Timor-Leste. Meanwhile, COVID-19 might be the first public health event to have severe social and economic impacts on the nation since its independence, though it surely will not be the last. In recent years, the world has witnessed the rise of diseases like Ebola and swine flu that have triggered a public health emergency in several countries and caused external shocks to the global economy.
It is certainly beyond the government’s control to prevent the extreme weather caused by climate change, to say nothing of global health emergencies originating in far-off places. Nonetheless, what it can do is to introduce mitigation measures and minimize the impacts of these events on the people of Timor-Leste. In particular, it needs to strengthen institutional capacity at every level in order to respond to future catastrophic events, to undertake proper urban planning, to regulate public and private housing according to high health and safety standards, to strengthen the nation’s public health system, to close the urban and rural divide, and to work to end multidimensional poverty. Only then will the people of Timor-Leste be equipped to withstand the external shocks likely in the years and decades to come.