COVID-19 Op-ed

Remembering the Forgotten Frontliners in Timor Leste During Covid-19 and Beyond

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Ato Lekinawa Costa
Editor in Chief Online News-Neon Metin (https://neonmetin.info)

All over the world, health workers, doctors, nurses have become the unsung heroes in this fight against COVID-19. We should not also forget others who are at the frontlines such as cleaners and those working in the food, hospitality and essential goods industries. In Timor-Leste, and perhaps in many parts of the developing world, there is a sector in society, which remains steadfast and committed to their work/livelihood and the well-being of their compatriots: Farmers, those who I call the “forgotten frontliners”.

On 27 March, President of Timor-Leste, Fransisco Guterres Lu-Olo declared a state of emergency for a month starting from 28 March until 26 April 2020. The government imposed guidelines to be followed by the public during this period including staying at home, wearing mask and physical distancing when in public.  The decree also banned the operation of public transportation, which paralyses public movement even further. Healthwise, the decree may help suppress the spread of the virus, but it has also disabled those who are already economically and socially vulnerable, including daily wage earners and those in the agricultural sector.

COVID-19 has become a great un-equaliser, especially in a least developing country like Timor Leste. While everyone is left vulnerable, the poor, mainly at the rural areas, are left at the bottom of the chain scrambling to fend for their needs and fight for survival. Timor Leste, one of the youngest nation in the world, relies heavily on agriculture, with 80% of the population being farmers. The Oxfam Agricultural Assessment Report revealed that about nearly 70% of farmers cultivate on less than one hectare of land, many of whom are small land holders.

Life has already been extremely difficult for farmers in Timor-Leste even before the coronavirus outbreak struck the country. Their livelihood is about subsistence, if not survival. Farm to market roads are underdeveloped, and are mostly difficult to access. In an interview I conducted few months ago with a villager in Ura-Hou, Ermera revealed that there is no public transportation to and from their village because the road is so bad. If they want to sell their produce they have to bring to market in Tasi-Tolu, Dili. For this to happen, they have to rent a truck which cost US$150 dollar. In Dili they could stay in the market selling their produce for one or two days—which is a long time away from their families and farms.

Most farmers are compelled to sell their produce within their respective communities. Some who can access markets, do not sell much and well. This is not because they don’t produce much to sell in big quantity but because they know when they produce more there will be no buyers. Oxfam’s Agricultural Report quoted a female horticulture farmer who said, “We grow a lot but it’s too hard to get money from our produce; we do not have access to market because of bad roads and no public transport in this Suku. Even in this Suku we do not have any market or local market. We are far from Viqueque”. In some places in Timor-Leste, where road conditions a bit better, supermarket is sending its refrigerated truck for purchasing local vegetables but that is only in one of places. 

Covid-19 and the Government’s response has just exacerbated the dire situation of farmers throughout the country. While they have to commit to the preservation of national health and safety, they also have to find ways to survive—and help others to free themselves from hunger. They are, indeed, the lifeline of the nation—with or without Covid-19. Safety nets and proper promotion & protection of their livelihood should be prioritised by the government during and after the state of emergency.

While the current case count of Timor Leste is much lower compared to the rest of the world, let this be a lesson that while the Coronavirus may not really threaten the livese of the Timorese, poverty and hunger are most likely to do that job.  We must act on behalf of our forgotten frontliners now before it’s too late.

References:

National Statistics Directorate (NSD) of Timor-Leste], Ministry of Finance (Timor-Leste), and ICF Macro. (2010). Timor-Leste Demographic and Health Survey 2009-10. Dili, Timor-Leste.

Oxfam International in Timor-leste. (2019). Towards Economic Diversification in Timor-Leste. Dili, Timor-Leste

Oxfam International in Timor-Leste. (2020), Agricultural Assessment, OXFAM in Timor-Leste. Dili, Timor-Leste.

Vieira, Zevonia. (2020, March 27th). PR Dekreta Estadu Emerjensia, Sei Limite Dereitu balun Laos Halakon, Atu Defende Povo Nia Vida. Retrieved from https://neonmetin.info/buletin/202003/27/pr-dekreta-estadu-emerjensia-sei-limita-direitu-balun-laos-halakon-atu-defende-povu-nia-vida/

Vieira, Zevonia, (2020. March 28). COVID-19, KM Aprova Dekretu Governu Ba Medidas Ezekusaun Estadu Emerjensia. Retrieved from https://neonmetin.info/buletin/2020/03/28/covid-19-km-aprova-dekretu-governu-ba-medidas-ezekusaun-estadu-emerjensia/


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