DILI, 30 March 2020 (TATOLI) – Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak has appealed to his countrymen and women to stay home as much as possible to prevent the spread of Covid-19, as new rules come into effect aimed at tackling the pandemic.
The PM said he considers movement restrictions, made possible by Saturday’s State of Emergency declaration, as the best way to prevent the virus from spreading.
“Our people face a huge risk during this crisis. We want to be a good example to our citizens and to history showing that, together, we can get through this crisis,” he said on Thursday.
The declaration came into effect at midnight on Saturday, and lasts for 30 days. Under the rules, mass gatherings are banned, and mass transit suspended. Meetings must have five people or fewer only, and businesses are obliged to install wash basins, and insist customers wear masks and remain one metre apart.
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There remain no restrictions on private transport, or rules forcing businesses to close.
“I want to appeal to all our population especially for the parents out there who have children and families living abroad: when they return home to our country, do not stay quiet and disguise your symptoms.”
“Instead, please approach health personnel and our police for assistance getting to the health centre, to help prevent the virus spreading through families and communities,” he said.
The pandemic has now infected more than 700,000 people in almost every country and territory on the globe. Just one person has tested positive for the virus in Dili, and remains in isolation. The Health Ministry said they have begun to recover from the virus.
‘Illegal’ arrivals trying to skip travel ban detained
The government earlier this month banned all travellers arriving from countries affected by the pandemic – if they manage to arrive on the few flights left operating. Timorese citizens returning from abroad are permitted to enter, but must submit to a mandatory 14-day quarantine at a site of the government’s choosing.
As of Monday, the Border Police Unit (UPF) said they had detained 74 passengers who arrived from Kupang, in Indonesian West Timor, for “non-compliance” with quarantine.
The detainees were trying to enter Timor by land from Balibo, Bobonaro, Nunura, Covalima and the Oe-Cusse borders. UPF officers also detained four Indonesians trying to illegally enter from the Suai border post.
“The detainees…will be presented by the UPF to the Covid-19 team [in Dili] to be quarantined for 14 days,” Superintendent João Belo dos Reis told TATOLI at the Batugadé border post in Bobonaro District.
TATOLI observed the border post almost completely abandoned following the travel ban. But authorities are observing a fixed window – between 10:00am and 12:00pm – where Timorese can cross the border.
However, Supt Belo said there must be continued coordination between the President of the Bobonaro Municipal Authority, local residents, and a team from the Ministry of Health to prevent the coronavirus.
The UPF commander also called on the authorities to monitor all Timorese nationals wishing to travel from Kupang and Atambua towards Timor-Leste.
Indonesia has recorded 1,414 cases of Covid-19 across its vast provinces, but none in East Nusa Tengarra Timur, which borders Timor-Leste. However, the figures reflect those patients who self-presented to a health clinic, so the actual figure may be much higher.
With Dili closing down, Timorese head to the Foho
Since the first confirmed Covid-19 case on March 21, the government has escalated its public health messaging to prevent further transmission of COVID-19. However, it has not yet implemented strict measures to stop the population returning to the Districts.
University of Dili student Antonio Martins spoke to TATOLI while waiting for the bus to his district, Los Palos. He said he believes he will be safer from the virus once he leaves the capital.
“We are going to districts due to the long [school] holidays, and also fear of Covid-19. …the Ministry of Education announced all students must stay home to prevent the spread of the virus. However I decided to go to districts, as it’s more secure,” Mr Martins said.
Felizarda Maria, from the Baucau District, agreed with him.
“We decided to return to the district because we are afraid of the disease that’s been detected in our country,” she told TATOLI.
Mass Transit has been suspended under the State of Emergency measures. But for the last three days before the ban, a Bus Driver from Lautem District said the buses were packed.
“The round trip to district is full with passengers, so we have two drivers to help out with the driving,” he said.
Businesses face a bleak few months
Shops and hotels in Dili have been struggling with the restrictions due to Covid-19. Many businesses no longer receiving new guests, and the travel bans bring a dramatic reduction in visitors, forcing many to put their employees on unpaid leave.
Mimi Chungue, the Manager of the Golgota Hotel and Restaurant in Dili, revealed that the hotel will no longer receive any new guests as a preventive measure against the novel coronavirus.
“We cannot receive more people, since we do not know if they were quarantined or not. We are afraid, because 40 guests are [already] here and we have to protect them as well as our employees,” Ms Chungue said.
She said revenue at the up-scale hotel, near Dili’s International Airport has taken a hit. Last month the hotel pulled in $40-50,000; this month revenue is down 30 per cent, she said.
“Before, we received countless foreign visitors. The travel agencies themselves transported passengers to our hotel. Unfortunately, [that] is over now,” she said.
At the Hotel Novo Turismo, Sales and Marketing Manager Denise Malla said many reservations have been cancelled due to Covid-19.
“During January and February, revenues were maintained. However, in March we saw a huge drop in revenue, and sometimes, even no visitors at all. The rooms are empty. We currently only have two or three reservations”, she said.
Despite this drop in revenue, the hotel in committed to retaining its employees.
“We plan to reduce employees’ working [shifts] from eight to four hours. We haven’t implemented it yet. For now, we await the government’s decision.”
“The workers will still be able to receive a salary according to the hours they work,” she concluded.
Contributing Journalists: Florencio Miranda Ximenes, Eugénio Pereira, Abrão de Vasconcelos
Editors: Robert Baird, Julia Chatarina, Francisco Simões, Cancio Ximenes
Translation: Nelia Borges