The first batch of COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Timor-Leste on April 5, bringing a renewed sense of hope to the tiny Indo-Pacific nation simultaneously enduring devastating floods and a capital city in strict coronavirus lockdown.
The first 24,000 doses arrived thanks to the COVAX Facility, a vaccine sharing alliance between the World Health Organization, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness. The scheme plans to immunise 20% of the nation’s 1.3 million population, with the next vaccine shipment scheduled for May.
Timor-Leste’s Director-General of Health Services Odete Viegas says the doses will be prioritised for frontline workers.
Immunising those working near the land border with Indonesia will be vital, Viegas said, because the neighbouring nation has fared the worst of any Southeast Asian country — recording over 1.5 million cases and 41,000 deaths since the pandemic began.
Timor-Leste has recorded just 714 cases and no deaths.
“We hope that the 24,000 doses of vaccines will be able to cover the frontline team,” Viegas said, according to Timorese agency Tatoli. “According to the plan, the launch of the vaccine is scheduled [for] April 7. Then, we will distribute doses to municipalities for two weeks and carry out the vaccination there.”
Australia, Timor-Leste's neighbour to the south, has promised to help the nation respond to the chaos caused by torrential rains, floods and landslides that have left at least 113 dead.
A spokesperson from Australia’s Department of Foreigners Affairs and Trade said Australia has already provided emergency power for the nation’s national COVID-19 testing laboratory, which had flooded.
"Australia has a responsibility to assist countries in our region and build capacity in the COVID-19 response,” Sharon Lewin, an infectious disease physician and researcher, and the inaugural director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, told Global Citizen. “The type of assistance we provide should be determined by Timor-Leste.”
Lewin said it was in Australia’s interest to help its nearest neighbours meet the challenges of the pandemic.
"It's become a cliché now but the tagline ‘COVID-19 is not over until it's over for everyone’’ is just so true,” she said. “We can't have two worlds — one for those that are vaccinated and one for those who are not. Without everyone vaccinated, there is always a risk of further outbreaks. It's just the right thing to do.”