MEDIA – Opinion Piece – We must act now to help our neighbour Timor-Leste

DARWIN – 11 April, 2021

The events of the past week have been heartbreaking for Timor-Leste, and all of us who love that country. 

Whilst grappling with a recent outbreak of COVID-19 – after months successfully holding the virus at bay – our near neighbours were hit with devastating flooding due to Tropical Cyclone Seroja. 

At least 157 people have been confirmed killed in eastern Indonesia and Timor-Leste, with dozens more still missing. About 8,000 East Timorese have lost their homes.

Floodwaters have done significant damage, and critical infrastructure such as roads and bridges have been destroyed, cutting off parts of the country. 

From some parts of Australia, Timor-Leste may seem a world away. But for us here in the Top End, we know that Timorese history and people are tightly woven into our lives. 

Darwin is only an hour’s flight from Dili, which is about four times closer to us than our eastern state capitals. 

Territorians have responded to this crisis with such generosity – on Friday at the Portuguese-Timorese Social Club, three shipping containers of donated goods had already been packed and a fourth was on its way. Many more donations are still pouring in. 

It has been an amazing display of solidarity. As a nation we can do much more and Darwin is the perfect base from which to launch our aid efforts.

Dili went into lockdown during the recent COVID-19 outbreak, but physical distancing isn’t possible during a large-scale natural disaster. 

People have been forced together in evacuation centres, camps, and other makeshift shelters, making viral transmission more likely. 

Our Federal Government should be deploying ADF and NCCTRC and working with our ally, the United States – the US Marine Corps and the US Navy Seabees have helped in Timor many times before.

As the floodwaters recede, we need to ensure that adequate supplies of fresh water, food, tents, and clothing are delivered to people displaced or cut off by the flooding. 

Our Army engineers can assist with the clean up and the repairing of essential buildings and critical infrastructure. We already have the Defence Cooperation Program on the ground to advise on this work.

Timor-Leste’s health infrastructure has been disrupted. If flood shelters become COVID-19 super-spreader sites, we’ll have to act fast.

We need aid staff, engineers, and medical personnel to help the Timorese vaccinate, heal, and rebuild in their hour of need. I know many of these organisations are ready to move.

I know the Federal Government has plans in place to deal with this crisis and they already have a formal request for assistance from Dili. 

The time to act was yesterday. We can help our neighbour, and we must – now.

This opinion piece was first published by The NT News on Sunday, 11 April 2021.