Timor-Leste

And Now, a Bright Spot: Timor-Leste Weathers a Pandemic

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October 14, 2020

By Pauline Tweedie and Carmen Soares

Over the course of 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge and devastating global impact. Deaths worldwide have surpassed one million, and in many places the rate of new infections is still rising, while others are struggling with the economic repercussions of domestic containment measures and a global recession.

Timor-Leste has not been exempt from the impacts of the disease. With a fragile healthcare system, an unstable political situation, and high levels of poverty, there was widespread concern in the early days that Asia’s youngest democracy would be hard-pressed to cope with the pandemic. Yet the news has been surprisingly good.

When the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Timor-Leste, on March 21, 2020, the government acted swiftly to control the outbreak. They closed the land border with neighboring Indonesia, instituted a state of emergency, and implemented widespread public information campaigns. As a result, Timor-Leste has been able to limit the total number of cases among its 1.4 million citizens to just 29, 28 who have recovered and one who remains an active case. This makes Timor-Leste one of only 10 countries globally to have effectively contained the virus, and one of 22 countries with the virus (out of 214) to have a death toll of zero.

While containing the threat to public health has been the primary concern, the threat of Covid-19 is in fact threefold: the threat to human health, the threat to the economy from local containment measures, and the international economic threat of the continuing global recession.

For Timor-Leste, the economic impact has been the most severe. While the government has been particularly effective at containing the public health threat, they have been unable to avoid the severe toll of the pandemic on the economy. Globally, we have seen the pandemic exacerbate social and economic vulnerabilities, and with an economy already in recession and high preexisting levels of poverty and unemployment, Timor-Leste has felt the economic pain acutely. Pre-Covid GDP projections estimated that economic growth would reach approximately 7% in 2020. Post-Covid, those projections have fallen 11 points, to roughly –4%. Meanwhile, the state of emergency and containment measures instated by the government of Timor-Leste have forced many businesses to close or cut back due to lack of income, and unemployment rates are rising.

In response to the economic shock of Covid-19, the government of Timor-Leste has taken strong measures to mitigate the threat of rising poverty, inequality, and unemployment. Using government reserve funds, Timor-Leste developed a social assistance program to support households’ immediate needs and aid their recovery from the restrictive measures adopted to contain the pandemic. As a whole, this package of government subsidies represents one of the highest rates of government spending in the region as a fraction of GDP.

The centerpiece of the government’s social welfare programs to date has been a cash payment of US$200 to approximately 300,000 households across the country. Public reaction to the payments, which started in June, has been positive, as documented by a pair of public-perception surveys by The Asia Foundation. The surveys found that trust in the government to take care of its citizens during Covid-19, which stood at 49% at the time of the first survey, in May, had increased 15 percentage points, to 64%, in July, the date of the second survey.

Additionally, more respondents in July said Timor-Leste was going in the right direction (54%) than the wrong direction (40%), almost a mirror image of the May results, when more respondents said Timor-Leste was going in the wrong direction (58%) than in the right direction (38%).

Remarkably, respondents noted several positive effects of the pandemic—an unexpected silver lining—and they viewed the impact of Covid-19 across all aspects of personal life more positively in July than they did in May. Chief among these bright spots were spending time with family (74% July, 53% May), feeling like part of the community (71% July, 53% May) and enjoying personal relationships (71% July, 49% May).

On the downside, a majority of respondents, though fewer than in May, said Covid-19 was still the biggest challenge facing Timor-Leste, including its impact on health (52%, down from 61% in May). Political issues remained a secondary concern, cited by 19%, and worries about the weak economy (16%) have grown more widespread since May (10%).

The survey also found that, despite growing trust in the government, the vast majority of respondents still had concerns about money (73%), health (71%), and food (68%). These findings were corroborated by another July result, a finding that 70% of respondents in the preceding 30 days had sometimes had to cut the size of a meal or skip one altogether because there was not enough money for food.

Overall, however, the government of Timor-Leste has contained the negative impacts of the pandemic. They have acted effectively to limit cases and mitigated the economic repercussions with some of the highest rates of stimulus spending in proportion to GDP anywhere in the region. The cash transfers implemented in June significantly improved short-term food security while helping rural businesses to reopen and reestablish trade. And public messaging and information campaigns have built trust in the government and encouraged the use of the cash transfers in ways that benefit entire households.

The persistent threat of global recession, the possibility of further infection, and lingering concerns about preexisting vulnerabilities leave plenty of room for concern going forward. Nevertheless, Timor-Leste’s initial response to the Covid-19 crisis has been impressive, and the hope is surely not misplaced that the government will show the same focus and dedication as it faces the challenges that lie ahead.

Read the results of the May Timor-Leste Covid-19 Survey.

Read results of the July Timor-Leste Covid-19 Survey.

Pauline Tweedie is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Timor-Leste. She can be reached at pauline.tweedie@asiafoundation.org. Carmenesa Soares is a senior program officer in Timor-Leste. She can be reached at carmenesa.soares@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.