‘Cocktail of disaster’: East Timor asks for Australian aid as floods trigger disease outbreak

Singapore: A state of calamity has been declared by East Timor, whose foreign minister has been asked to seek international assistance from Australia and others as it bids to recover from catastrophic floods and landslides and confronts an alarming new COVID-19 outbreak.

There have been 42 recorded deaths in the country since Tropical Cyclone Seroja unleashed carnage this week, with 70 others still missing. Another 163 have died and 45 are missing in Indonesia’s southernmost province East Nusa Tenggara, where Indonesia president Joko Widodo visited on Friday to survey the affected areas.

Dili has been devastated by a cyclone that tore through east Timor this week.Credit:Wayne Lovell

At a meeting of government officials, ambassadors and aid organisations in east Timor’s capital Dili on Friday the government said it had allocated $US1.45 million ($A1.9m) from its state budget for the initial recovery effort from the natural disaster including for food supply and the re-construction of roads and bridges.

But that will be far from enough – Timor’s Prime Minister has estimated the destruction will cost more than $US100 million ($132 million). Beyond the destruction there are major concerns about a spike in COVID-19 cases and the virus spreading more rapidly within Dili’s 40 evacuation centres, which are housing between 7000 and 10,000 people.

Fidelis Leite Magalhaes, the Minister of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers and government spokesman, told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age that as part of a state of calamity being declared, Foreign Affairs Minister Adaljiza Magno was reaching out to “friendly nations including Australia and especially perhaps Australia” seeking help.

He warned of a “cocktail of more disastrous effects” from the flooding which left Dili under water earlier this week including a surge in waterborne diseases such as cholera, dengue fever and malaria but also coronavirus. East Timor had largely contained the virus until last month when a worrying increase in numbers forced Dili into lockdown and after the country saw its first COVID-19 death on Tuesday – that of a 44-year-old woman – there have been 98 new cases of the virus, according to Magalhaes.

The remains of a house in the Comoro river, Dili. Credit:Wayne Lovell

“In the last couple of months we’ve been really struggling to contain COVID-19. Our fear is the possibility of an outbreak in the emergency shelters,” he said.

“Our foreign minister has been tasked to seek and galvanise international assistance.”

East Timor received its first batch of COVID-19 vaccine on Monday with the arrival of 24,000 doses of AstraZeneca via the COVAX scheme for developing nations and there was a delivery on Wednesday from Australia of personal protective equipment to restock supplies lost in the flooding.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Friday additional vaccine doses would be diverted to East Timor as well as Papua New Guinea, whose health system has crushed by a devastating virus outbreak. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was also approached for comment on Australia’s assistance for Timor-Leste and its government’s call for more help.

Indonesia president Joko Widodo inspects damage at Amakaka village in the province of East Nusa Tenggara on Friday.

While 13,354 people have been displaced in the tiny south-east Asian nation since the cyclone and water, electricity and internet supply have been affected, authorities and aid organisations are still discovering the full extent of the impact of Seroja in other regions, with travel complicated by Dili’s COVID-containing “ring of steel”.

Alex Tilman, a United Nations development coordinator in Dili, said East Timor “does not have the necessary resources to cope with the recent natural disaster”.

“Many many people are still homeless right now,” Tilman said.

Another problem, according to Dageng Liu, the World Food Programme’s country director in East Timor, was that the lockdown of Dili from March had triggered an increase in food prices, prompting the government to distribute 1000 tonnes of rice in bid to bring prices down.

In Indonesia, Doni Monardo, the head of natural disaster mitigation agency or BNPB, said helicopters and search and rescue dogs were still being deployed to locate the 45 people missing since the cyclone tore through the city of Kupang and 21 other districts in the islands that make up East Nusa Tenggara province.

BMKG, Indonesia’s meteorology, climatology and geophysics agency, also warned of further danger from another cyclone approaching from the Indian Ocean.

Dwikorita Karnawati, the BMKG director, said the impact on Indonesia would be high sea waves of up to four to six metres on the southern part of Java, Bali and West Nusa Tenggara provinces from Friday to Sunday and heavy rain could bring about more floods and landslides.

– with Karuni Rompies

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