How tiny Timor-Leste kept the coronavirus at bay

Timor-Leste, formerly known as East Timor, has a creaky healthcare system and is one of the poorest countries in Asia, but even as neighbouring Indonesia grapples with one of the worst outbreaks in the region, it has managed to keep the virus at bay.

The country had reported only 44 COVID-19 infections with zero fatalities as of Monday, leaving it with the second-smallest outbreak in Southeast Asia after Laos, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Experts credit the government’s swift action, imposing strict border controls and ramping up testing and healthcare facilities within weeks, as well as its willingness to work with experts for the relative success of its response.

Michael Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization (WHO) Health Emergencies Programme, said earlier this month that Timor-Leste had “relied very heavily on UN and NGO-based support.

“It is very heartening that countries with very fragile infrastructure that are still continuing to emerge as nations, still require a lot of external support can demonstrate that they can get reasonable control upon a devastating disease like COVID,” he said.

In reality, Timor-Leste, with a population of more than 1.2 million, had little choice but to act decisively.Experts say its weak health infrastructure and economy would have struggled with a sudden spike of infections.


Timor-Leste had a per capita income of $1,560.51 in 2019, according to the World Bank and even though it has kept the virus in check its economy is still expected to contract by 6.8 percent in 2020 – the worst decline since its independence. The country is not only dealing with COVID-19 but also a political crisis earlier this year.

Sense of emergency

Timor-Leste was a Portuguese colony for centuries before Indonesia invaded the territory in 1975. During more than two decades of brutal rule hundreds of thousands of people died.

The country finally secured formal independence in 2002 after more than three-quarters of the electorate voted to leave Indonesia in a UN-administered referendum.

Mariano Ferreira has been working as a researcher at the capital Dili-based NGO, La’o Hamutuk, for some 12 years and monitors the operations of government agencies in the country.“All public and private activities, as well as government services were closed, even masses were not allowed, so we felt it was really an emergency and everyone returned to their hometowns [from Dili] and stayed there,” he told Al Jazeera, adding schools were also shut.


The state of emergency has been extended until January 2 and borders will remain closed to most foreigners except residents, with international flights suspended unless for government and humanitarian purposes. Those entering the country are quarantined for 14 days at government-managed facilities.

Strict border control

The municipality of Cova Lima borders Indonesia, which has reported Southeast Asia’s largest number of infections with more than 719,000 cases.

Traditionally, the border is quite fluid and many Timorese have close links with Indonesia, crossing the border informally to see relatives and enjoy family gatherings.

The pandemic has forced a change as borders have been closed and quarantines imposed.

“In Cova Lima, sometimes the groceries come in once a week. But [only] the goods that come in, not the people,” said Domingos Gavrila Amaral, the head of Timor-Leste Red Cross (CVTL)’s Cova Lima office.

Communities have also played a part.

People have made their homes available to the government to quarantine thousands of people and keep a close eye out for those entering the country by land from Indonesia. The border is opened once a week for citizens wanting to return home but those who go straight to their homes without first being tested and going through the quarantine, are reported.

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