Tibar residents protest the opening of a coronavirus isolation site at a local clinic on March 8. Sign reads: "Our Tibar community will not accept coronavirus".(Image/Domingos Piedade Freitas)

DILI, 9 March 2020 (TATOLI) – Health authorities have reassured residents at Tibar, west of Dili, that an Italian man with a suspected case of coronavirus posed no threat to public health, after crowds attempted to storm a quarantine site last night.

Police Commissioner Faustino da Costa said the standoff began with the group blocking the vehicles of health officials, including Vice-Minister Elia dos Reis Amaral, from entering the site.

The manager of the adjacent Klibur Domin Tibar clinic told TATOLI the crowd then tried to break into the accommodation units. After four hours, officers managed to disperse the crowd with tear gas around 11 o’clock, the commissioner said.

“The community members protested vigorously because they don’t accept the government setting up an isolation centre for coronavirus sufferers,” Commissioner Faustino said.

Tibar locals protest near the Klibur Domin Tibar clinic on Monday, March 9 (Image/supplied)

Health officials confirmed the patient had been holidaying last month in Italy, a new epicentre of the virus which has now claimed 463 lives there. The Ministry’s Director-General of Health Services, Odete Viegas da Silva, said he returned on March 1, and then presented to the Stamford Medical Clinic in Dili on Friday, wearing a protective mask.

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On social media, Stamford said the patient was taken to its new self-contained, temporary isolation unit for assessment when he showed symptoms of Covid-19. He remains in isolation there, in a stable condition, and is currently awaiting the results of a swab sent to a laboratory in Darwin, Australia for analysis.

A “lack of understanding” about Covid-19: WHO

At Tibar, about 17 west of Dili, protestors returned to the Klibur Domin clinic in the morning, bearing signs that read “Tibar will not accept coronavirus”. Speaking on behalf of the village, Horacio da Conceçăo said the community “totally rejects” the location of the quarantine site.

Tibar local, Horatio de Conceçăo (Image/Tatoli)

“Whenever [someone with] coronavirus comes here, it will affect our community,” he told TATOLI.

“We suggest to the government put [the patient] on Jaco Island, or another place surrounded by the sea,” he said, referring to the uninhabited sand island off Timor’s eastern tip.

The World Health Organisation’s country representative for Timor-Leste, Dr Rajesh Pandav said he understood the feeling among locals.

“This is a natural reaction of all people when new disease appears. Anybody will be afraid… because not much is known yet about coronavirus,” he said.

But Dr Pandav said the fear reflects a “lack of understanding” about the disease — which authorities were working to change through social media and leaflet drops.

Timor-Leste country director for the WHO, Dr Rajesh Pandav (Image/supplied)

“The infection spreads through droplets. That is, coughs and sneezes. And those can travel up to one metre; it is not in the air everywhere. So it doesn’t mean that [other] people will get it,” he said.

Timor-Leste has remained free of the virus that’s spread to more than 100 countries worldwide since the outbreak was detected in China on New Year’s Eve.

Dubbed Covid-19, the virus has affected more than 110,000 people as of Monday, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Some 3,700 of those people have died, mostly in mainland China (3,097).

Flyers like this one are being distributed by WHO Timor-Leste in English and Tetum (Image/WHO)

Tibar “a place to dump rubbish, patients”

Klibur Domin (KD), an NGO-run clinic with a specialised Tuberculosis program, is the only multi-drug resistant TB facility in Timor-Leste.

Director, Joaquim Soares Freitas, told TATOLI some of his patients wanted to leave when they learned about the new quarantine site.

“They were very concerned, they were very scared and they were running around and wanting to leave KD and go home,” he said.

Joaquim said he understood the frustrations of locals, who suffer health problems from rubbish fires at the nearby Tibar waste disposal site. A video of a protestor, shared widely on Timor social media, featured a woman complaining that Tibar had “become a place to put rubbish, to put [people with] HIV, tuberculosis and coronavirus”.

“It was sad [to hear that] actually, but you know we are trying our best to explain that we should respect people, we don’t discriminate against any patients, people suffering any kind of disease,” Joaquim said.

He explained the new quarantine site comprises of seven buildings, housing some 25-30 beds, and is separate from KD. The buildings had been earmarked to open as a domestic violence shelter when the Ministry of Health moved in.

The site is also some 70-80 metres from the main clinic, and at least 50 metres from the nearest home, he said. Nevertheless, in order to calm his staff and patients, Joaquim said he’d boosted security and insisted patients use hand sanitiser before entering the building.

Identify, Isolate and care: Timor gets prepared

The Tibar incident follows more than a week of negotiations by the Ministry of Health to find a suitable quarantine site. Proposed locations included a Defence Force facility at Metinaro, east of Dili, and the city’s Vera Cruz clinic. Both met with stiff community opposition.

Following the incident at Tibar, Defence and Interior Minister, Filomeno Paixão de Jesus said the Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak had ordered police and defence personnel to work with the Minister of Health to give “maximum attention” to containing the virus.

And he appealed to the community to “sit down and think” about what will happen if the virus reaches Timor-Leste before a quarantine system is in place.

“If we don’t have a good [isolation site] in place, a person out in the open can spread the disease around,” he said.

The WHO’s Dr Rajesh Pradav, left, and UN Resident Coordinator Roy Trivedy met President Lú-Olo to discuss the virus response on Monday (Image/PR Media)

The WHO last week provided Timor-Leste with 10 kits, sufficient to test 1,000 people for Covid-19 in-country. But Dr Pradav explained the equipment needed to be “validated” through a laboratory in Melbourne, before the results become reliable.

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The WHO has also distributed Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – including 20,000 gloves and 32,000 face masks – to frontline healthcare workers. The Australian government also assisted with $300,000 worth of PPEs, according embassy officials. And a Chinese government-funded infrared scanner has been installed at Nicolau Lobato International Airport in Dili to look for signs of fever in passengers as they arrive.

Dr Pradav expected the results of the patient’s coronavirus status would be known “very soon”.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of the story said the suspected coronavirus patient had been transferred to Klibur Domin. He remains in isolation at Stamford Medical.

Journalists: Robert Baird; Domingos Piedade Freitas

Editors: Robert Baird; Agapito dos Santos

Translation: Nelia Borges