By Roy Trivedy
UN Resident Coordinator in Timor-Leste
Following the unprecedented measures taken, the speed of the outbreak in China has finally started to show signs of slowing down. Despite the cautious optimism, it is still too early to say whether we are at the beginning, middle or the end of the outbreak there. However, what is equally – or perhaps – more worrying now, is the appearance of ‘hotspots’ in other countries such as South Korea, Italy and Iran. The emergence of recent cases in countries with ‘less well developed’ health systems – and their ability to effectively manage and control this outbreak – is deeply concerning.
It is critical for all counties – including Timor-Leste – to pro-actively assess and strengthen preparedness and response to this global emergency. As the current WHO position reminds us: “We are encouraged by the continued decline in cases in China. We remain concerned about the increasing signs of transmission outside China and we are calling on all countries to invest urgently in preparedness for the arrival of cases, and to prioritize the protection of health workers, individuals at risk and to communicate better the risks of transmission to their people.”
The government and people of Timor-Leste have taken some remarkable strides to prepare for this emergency. Working alongside partners such as WHO, points of entry such as the airport have had thermal scanners and health declaration cards installed. While we wait for test kits to arrive at our National Laboratory in Dili, arrangements have been made to test our samples at a leading laboratory in Melbourne. Training in the correct management of patients has been provided to health workers and emergency responders and systems for surveillance are being strengthened. In addition, concerted efforts are being made to provide swift, accurate and reliable information to the public, media and partners within and outside government. This is critical to dispel the rumour mongering and conspiracy theories abounding on social media.
The Prime Minister’s Office through the state gazette, Jornal da Republica announced the decision to establish an Inter-ministerial Coordination Committee to “prevent and control” COVID-19 in Timor-Leste
However, if we are to successfully manage cases ‘when’ and not ‘if’ the virus appears on our shores, more needs to be done. I would like to focus on two critical elements here. The first is to identify and establish health facilities to isolate, observe and treat any suspected cases and quarantine their close contacts. The second is to establish effective coordination mechanisms within the Health Ministry and also with other Ministries, without which an effective response to this emergency will not be possible.
We have every chance of strengthening our emergency preparedness, but if we are to have any chance of successfully preventing the virus from spreading and managing its potential impacts, we must not forget the biggest lesson to have come out of the fantastic response mounted by China – “Speed is of the essence”. If we are to succeed, we must act swiftly – for there is little time to lose!