COVID-19 Op-ed

How the Social Protection Programme could potentially Exacerbate Inequalities in Timor-Leste Amid Covid-19

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Therese Nguyen Thi Phuong Tam
Lecturer of Social Science Faculty, National University of Timor-Lorosa’e

Timor Leste was not spared from the wrath of Covid-19. Several emergency protocols were implemented, such as movement restrictions and limited working hours. As a result, this young and small nation suffered severely from the social and economic impacts. The number of households that can afford only for one meal a day increased significantly during the state of emergency (Chen & Oxfam, 2020). The informal sectors, such as small traders and public transport runners, suffered most. Other medium and large-scale business sectors were also affected especially the people-oriented services.

There are several social protection measures adopted by the government to mitigate the negative impact of State of Emergency. These include free quarantine places for new arrivals from the border, both land and air; free electricity, overseas students’ subsidies, 100 USD cash transfer to households, and a proposed food vouchers for each household (RDTL, 2020). However, the practices and implementation have revealed gap and flaws which can waste the state budget and imply inequality and social injustice.

In April 2020, the government and the ministry of public work have initiated to provide free electricity $30 in two months to all population with pre-paid meter installation. Some households in remote areas with no access to electricity would not receive $30 because they do not have a meter installation in their house. To receive aid, each household has to send the serial number of the meter. The Ministry of Public will recharge automatically the $30 to one’s pre-paid meter twice in 2 months. These policy and practices imply that the government aids are not accessible to everyone. The policy is commendable, but the implementation creates social inequality among the population.

On June 9, 2020, the government started to subsidize 200 USD to 298,000.00 households with income below 500 USD monthly. The database on the number of households keeps changing. In the end, the final numbers come from hamlet chiefs and village chiefs. They have no reliable database of their population. Commission of anti-corruption discovered that several households are not eligible to receive the subsidy. The number of households also dramatically increased in the year of 2020 compared with the 2019 agriculture census (Timor Post, 2020).

In August, students from all over the university in Dili protested the injustice of cash transfer to some overseas students. They insisted that the government and private university should provide free enrolment for this new semester. They in fact, faced a lot of difficulties during the State of Emergency to study online with limited resources and family economic crisis.

In June, the Economic Recovery Plan Commission was established under the direct leadership of Prime Minister. The report was released online, but it omitted the discussion around the academics, civil society and community as a whole. If we look at the short-term plans, we can foresee the same problems will happen again if they continue to use the database that was proven problematic.

Workers in the informal sector will receive subsidies. Two-thirds of the people in this sector are women earning their living as small traders of food and goods.

The implementation period of the short-term phase will be two months term in November and December of this year. We expect that the government anticipates the consequences of the strong influx of money from the state do not affect the country normal prices of goods that may affect the consumption of basic needs; and ensure that the women and disabled people in informal sectors who mostly have low literacy, lack of access to information, and lack of mobility will have enough time to register for the subsidies on time.

The implementation of the Recovery Plan may create social injustice and inflation due to urgent acts and lack of consultation with the people. The ones who need more assistance ended up helping the ones who are not eligible.

We should have learned from flaws of the last cash transfer, therefore collecting, storing and validating the database is very important for future use.

References:

Governu Timor-Leste (9 June 2020),  Governu hahú selu apoiu osan ba uma-kain sira iha ámbitu pandemia COVID-19 nian, http://timor-leste.gov.tl/?p=24623&n=1&lang=tp

RDTL (2020). The Economic Recovery plan, Dili: 8th Constitution Government.

Timor Post (Agosto 12, 2020), Klarifikasaun kona-ba CAC nia Atuasaun iha Subsidiu $200 ba Agregadu Familiar, https://diariutimorpost.com/2020/08/12/klarifikasaun-kona-ba-cac-nia-atuasaun-iha-subsidiu-200-ba-agregadu-familiar/

Oxfam &MDI (2020). The informal sector in Timor-Leste in the midst of COVID-19. Dili: Oxfam.

Chen, Lili & Oxfam (2020). Women in agriculture in Timor-Leste: State of Emergency and COVID impacts, Dili: Oxfam.

 


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