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Timor-Leste’s COVID-19 success and sweeping political change

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A vendor wearing a protective mask looks on as he waits for customers at a traditional market, after the government announced new cases of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Dili, East Timor, 16 April 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Lirio da Fonseca).

In Brief

Timor-Leste is a surprising success story in the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. As of mid-December 2020, the country had recognised a total of just 31 cases and it is one of the few nations to have not reported a single casualty.


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This success is all the more remarkable given that Timor-Leste’s public health facilities are fragile — Dili’s national hospital had only one ventilator in March. Private medicine is all but absent and basic rules of social distancing defy everyday practices. Mask wearing and hand hygiene are also difficult to implement.

Timor-Leste’s success derives mainly from the severe restrictions imposed on contact with the outside world. From early March, commercial flights were banned, with the exception of some limited humanitarian connections. The land borders with Indonesia — where the pandemic was raging — were also closed, opening only once every 17 days for a maximum of 200 crossings. A mandatory 14-day quarantine was introduced for those few who entered the country.

In a country not renowned for the efficacy of its public administration, the efforts to combat the pandemic were entrusted — at an early date — to a special ad hoc ‘Integrated Centre for Crisis Management’. Former prime minister Rui Maria de Araújo was a leading figure in this committee, which set up the administrative machinery necessary to coordinate the response to the pandemic before turning it over to the respective ministry.

At the political level, the fight against COVID-19 had serious effects. In March 2020, all political parties agreed to ask President Fransisco ‘Lu-Olo’ Guterres to declare a state of emergency, suspending some political rights and constitutional guarantees. The harsh move was deemed necessary to stage the first measures of confinement and prevent the virus from entering the country.

At this time, Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak, leader of the People’s Liberation Party (PLP), had tendered his resignation which was pending approval by Lu-Olo. This was the latest move in a long tug-of-war that ultimately pitted the President against Xanana Gusmão, the independence leader and main figure of the National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) party. After managing to renegotiate a government coalition, Xanana Gusmão was proposed by the new majority in parliament to (once again) become prime minister, even though the post was not officially vacant. But the need to fight the pandemic put things on hold.

In April, the consensus that had sustained the first declaration of the state of emergency broke down because the CNRT refused to give its consent. The new coalition did not resist this change of heart. Taur Matan Ruak withdrew his resignation and — in a surprise move — established an alliance with the President’s party, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin). For the first time since independence, Xanana Gusmão is no longer part of the inner circle of power

While his government formally kept its function, the composition was radically altered with new Fretilin ministers replacing all the CNRT ones. As of mid-December, Timor-Leste has declared a state of emergency eight times, even though the effects of the pandemic have been contained. Several quarters have criticised the government for these measures, including former president José Ramos-Horta and Fretilin leader Mari Alkatiri. Changes did not affect the government composition alone.

The new political orientation of Taur Matan Ruak’s government contradicts what he stood for in his first 18 months in office in significant ways. The government’s recent acquisition of the majority of the capital in the joint venture to explore oil and gas in the Greater Sunrise field came under inciting criticism. The leadership of the petroleum authority has been replaced amid a bitter exchange of public accusations.

The new government is also questioning the rationale for developing mega-projects, such as the Tasi Mane venture on the south coast — intended to provide support for oil processing — which has already absorbed a significant amount of investment. Gusmão has successfully linked the oil issue — including the delimitation of borders and the development of onshore facilities — with the affirmation of sovereignty, inserting it in the core of the nationalist narrative

In economic terms, the situation of exception marking most of the year has meant a continuation of the problems that marred the country after the election of Lu-Olo in 2017. Despite surviving as prime minister, Taur Matan Ruak could not approve the budget for 2020 before October. Until then the country had to live on duodecimal instalments based on the 2019 budget, limiting its ability to provide necessary public stimulus to the economy.

Non-oil GDP contracted for the third time in four years. In this critical situation, the government resorted to significant withdrawals from the Petroleum Fund. Among the countries of the Asia-Pacific region, Timor-Leste is estimated to have devoted a greater share of its GDP to extraordinary pandemic mitigation measures than to the economy, families and enterprises combined. To redress the situation, the recently approved 2021 budget is the second-highest in the country’s history.

Timor-Leste’s success in controlling the pandemic marched hand-in-hand with sweeping political changes. These changes will certainly be contentious for years to come.

Rui Graça Feijó is a research fellow at the Centre for Social Studies, the University of Coimbra, and an associate researcher at the Institute for Contemporary History, NOVA University Lisbon.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2020 in review and the year ahead.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.

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