COVID-19 Awareness: How do we reach the poorest and most remote households in Timor-Leste?
Francisca Sarmento and Fraser Goff
Francisca Sarmento is WaterAid’s program manager in Manufahi Municipality, Timor-Leste. In this blog, Francisca talks about her team’s experience responding to COVID-19. As of 19 May, Timor-Leste has confirmed 24 cases, but no cases reported in Manufahi Municipality.
For ten years, Francisca and her team have been working in communities, schools and healthcare centres in Manufahi to improve access to safe water, decent toilets and increase hygiene behaviours, such as handwashing with soap and water.
Manufahi, on Timor’s southern coast, faces Australia across the Timor Sea, but daily life for its 50,000 people is very different. The winding road to Manufahi from Timor-Leste’s capital Dili passes mountain fields with herds of horses, coffee plantations and jungle.
Along the coast, families make their living by growing rice or risking the crocodiles in the rivers to catch fish to sell in the markets. It is remote and rugged; some villages are more than a day’s walk to the main town of Same.
The WaterAid team on the ground conducts its programs by working closely with local government and partner organisations Strive for the Future (F-LBF), Women for Sustainable Action (FAS) and Strive for Change (LBM). In 2019, WaterAid and the municipal team celebrated the milestone that for the first time, everyone in Manufahi Municipality could access a toilet near their home.
Facing the current global pandemic, WaterAid Timor-Leste has been urgently scaling up our hygiene work. The messages for preventing COVID-19 are simple: wash your hands thoroughly and regularly with soap, cough into your elbow and maintain distance from others.
But ensuring these simple messages get to the poorest and most remote households in Manufahi municipality is not easy. Many villages are hard to reach, and our WaterAid team have to broadcast information from speakers on the back of their motorbikes, as they ride the muddy mountain roads from village to village.
In the communities where WaterAid and our partners work, many people are scared. They have heard about COVID-19 and they know that is has killed many people around the world. But many people are also hearing and believing incorrect information.
Many think traditional cultural practices, like eating bitter-tasting food such as papaya leaves and bitter gourd, will protect them from getting sick. This means we have to work hard to ensure people get the right information to prevent this new disease from spreading due to misinformation.
WaterAid and our partners run community demonstrations about how to properly wash hands with soap, in line with World Health Organisation and Ministry of Health Guidance. We run activities to teach people the critical times to wash their hands, including before cooking and after going to the toilet. We also take the opportunity to remind people of other important health messages, such as always using a toilet rather than openly defecating, and treating their water before they drink it.
We have also been doing a lot to help the institutional response to COVID-19. As a representative of WaterAid Timor-Leste, I am a member of the Municipal Administration’s technical taskforce for COVID-19, responsible for coordinating with non-government organisations in the municipality. My colleague Lavao is leading the taskforce’s logistics and Armando, from our partner organisation F-LBF, is responsible for planning.
Together we are helping the Municipal government coordinate their response to ensure everyone works together to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
WaterAid always aims to build strong local collaboration, skills and strategies for water, sanitation and hygiene to ensure these services are sustainable. The way the government quickly and efficiently mobilised this taskforce shows how important it is for organisations to work in a way that strengthens local government capacity and leadership.
On 1 May, I was a speaker on a talk show about the Manufahi Municipal COVID-19 taskforce’s efforts. The talk reached many people, as it was shown on RTTL (the national television broadcaster) as well as local community radio and Facebook live stream.
After finishing the talk show, WaterAid Timor-Leste and our partners F-LBF, FAS and LBM handed over six large water tanks, 15 disinfectant tanks and materials, handwashing soap, raincoats and bleach to the head of the taskforce. These materials were funded through the Australian Government’s Water for Women programme and have now been installed for people to wash their hands at healthcare centres, markets and schools across the municipality.
Through the work we have been doing, communities in Manufahi are now well prepared. Most households have constructed tippy-taps from jerry cans at the front of their house, which enables them to wash their hands without touching the container and people are practising good hygiene and physical distancing.
We are pleased to contribute to resilient water, sanitation and hygiene services which help the prevention of COVID-19. We will continue to work towards our goal that clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene are a normal part of everyday life for everyone in Timor-Leste.