Leaving no one behind: Data reaffirms the challenges for Timor-Leste’s most vulnerable during COVID-19

The recently released second United Nations Socio-Economic Impact Assessment (SEIA-2) seeks to understand how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected different sectors of society in Timor-Leste – particularly the most vulnerable.

December 16, 2021

Leaving no one behind

The recently released second United Nations Socio-Economic Impact Assessment (SEIA-2) seeks to understand how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected different sectors of society in Timor-Leste – particularly the most vulnerable. Persons with disabilities (PWDs) – around 2% of the Timor-Leste population – are some of the most vulnerable in any society and face specific risks during pandemics. These include difficulties accessing medical services, supplies and information, as well as suffering from underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk of hospitalization or death if infected.

People with disabilities are overrepresented in the poorer segments of Timor-Leste society – 52.3% of PWDs are found in the lowest two wealth quintiles. Already living in higher rates of poverty and disadvantage, for many PWDs the complications of the pandemic sadly still ranked much lower than existing vulnerabilities they face. “I am not worried about COVID. My bigger problem is availability of food. My biggest concern is my house. The rains damaged my house and the roof which is made out of zinc is not in a good state,” said Luis Pereira de Jesus (34) who lives with disability in the municipality of Liquica.

“Many PWDs have no jobs, no support. Before pandemic PWDs were already stigmatized and vulnerable, and isolated – with COVID they are even more isolated,” said Junior da Costa de Araujo, Programme Coordinator for Ra’es Hadomi Timor-Oan, the National Disabled Person's Organisation in Timor-Leste.

In Timor-Leste – where 75% of the population rely on subsistence agriculture to survive – PWDs are employed at around half the rate (28.0%) of persons without a disability (51.7%). Persons with a disability commonly resort to agricultural subsistence work to compensate the lack of access to formal employment. This exposes them to further livelihood vulnerability, with rainfed farming, fishing, and forest-based livelihoods highly sensitive to climate-change and natural disaster impacts.

This high climate vulnerability was exposed during the pandemic when Timor-Leste faced one of its worst natural disasters in recent history. Cyclone Seroja, which hit the half-island nation on April 4, 2021, resulted in at least 34 fatalities and affected over 30,000 households and 2,660 hectares of agricultural land. SEIA-2 found that 32.5% of all agricultural households had crops or harvests destroyed.

PWDs and their families in rural areas often also from a lack of basic services such as water and electricity. Elda Soares da Costa Guterres (40) lives as a widow in the remote municipality of Viqueque. Unable to afford electricity or water, she sells vegetables to feed her family of three children, one of whom has a disability. Like many, she suffered from a general drop in trade, transport, and consumption during the pandemic. “Before COVID my income was ok. But after COVID my income dropped drastically because people do not buy my produce. In Viqueque there are more people selling vegetables than buying.”

Guterres’ precarious situation lacking social protection and support services highlighted common challenges faced by PWDs, and especially women family members looking after them. “In Viqueque there are no facilities for people with disabilities. For me as a parent of a child with disability it has been hard. When I want to go Venilale I need to do a swab test and I am afraid of quarantine. If I am positive I will be quarantined and who will look after my kids?”

The detailed disaggregated data collected by SEIA-2 revealed that PWDs live with significantly higher levels of disadvantage than people without disabilities, across many indicators. For example, interviewees with a disability or disabilities were already more less likely to attend education before the pandemic, than people without disabilities. “The pandemic highlighted the inequalities that were already present [for PWDs],” said de Araujo.

“The information of COVID was not that effective, especially for PWDs. For example there are people who are blind who cannot access info on prevention from television or other print media. Most COVID-19 information was from print posters, radio and TV,” said de Araujo

“The government also needs to create inclusive and accessible isolation/quarantine centres for PWDs. When a PWD gets tested positive they usually do home quarantine as the isolation centres are not accessible for PWDs,” de Araujo added.

The process of gathering data for SEIA-2 was designed to provide policy makers with the knowledge and tools to target COVID-19 and other support measures accurately at the most vulnerable sections of society. PWDs are one of the most vulnerable groups in Timor-Leste, with an average of only 4% of PWDs receiving dedicated government support benefits.

The government needs to provide equal and just treatment for every citizen of Timor-Leste,” said de Araujo, “everyone’s contribution is important. PWD are still behind and do not receive much attention.”

SEIA Full Report can be found here