Matt Bamford – Australian doctors have joined the fight against COVID-19 in Timor-Leste in a bid to prevent devastation in one of South-East Asia's most vulnerable countries.
Staff from the Menzies School of Health Research, based in Darwin, have been working in challenging conditions to help initiate testing and treatment programs, with help from both national governments.
As the deadly disease continues to spread through nearby countries, there are growing fears the tiny nation could be overwhelmed by an outbreak.
The tiny nation of 1.2 million people has been in a state of emergency since March 28.
So far, six cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed, but that number is expected to rise with around 178 people showing symptoms.
Inside the country's national hospital in Dili, Australia's Dr Joshua Francis has been helping to establish testing procedures.
The infectious disease specialist is one of 30 Australian and Timorese health workers from the Menzies trying to stop coronavirus from spreading.
"It is quite confronting really how little (resources) there are compared to the things we take for granted in Australia," he told ABC Radio Sydney.
He said there are grave concerns about the damage the virus could do to a population where four out of 10 people live in poverty.
"The fear of COVID-19 tearing through the community and wreaking havoc is very real, but the government has responded proactively," he said.
Timor-Leste's Ambassador to Australia, Ines Maria de Almeida, said her country was taking decisive action but is preparing for the worst.
"We have a very weak health system... to hear the stories and pleas (of people back home) is really sad, but we will do our best," she said.
"We are counting on the support of the Australian people who have helped us through difficult times. Sadly we have to knock on their doors again to say Timor-Leste is desperate."
Sourcing medical equipment is the government's priority but with large nations struggling to purchase medical supplies, Ambassador Almeida said Timor-Leste will find it hard.
For several years, the Menzies School of Health Research has partnered with local clinicians to strengthen Timor-Leste's ability to combat infectious diseases.
In recent months, staff who normally treat tuberculosis and rheumatic heart disease have shifted their focus to the new enemy.
Director Professor Alan Cass said it had been an opportunity to strengthen ties with Australia's small neighbour.
"It speaks to the critical role hospitals and research institutions can play in our partnership with near neighbours like Timor-Leste," he said.
"One month ago there wasn't an ability to test for COVID-19 in Timor-Leste, and our team was able to work with local hospital staff to begin testing."
Staff can now perform up to 50 tests a day.
This capacity building has been praised by Ambassador Almeida. "It makes a tremendous difference given we can now do the testing locally – that is something we greatly appreciate," she said.
"(This partnership) strengthens our ability to look after ourselves."
While the work has been promising, Dr Francis said there are "confronting realities" about the availability of essential medical supplies, such as ventilators.
"We don't have the capacity to ventilate hundreds of people, so it makes the other measures of prevention and early detection so crucially important," he said.
Staff levels have also taken a hit in recent weeks, according to Professor Cass, with about 10 Australian staff returning home on advice from the government.
"There still remains strong engagement everyday with the team still in Timor-Leste; our primary approach has been to ensure the safety of those staff," he said.
Ambassador Almeida said her government could request further assistance from the Australian Defence Force to deliver medical supplies.
In addition to $100.7 million in promised aid, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has commenced a series of efforts to support the country.
Seasonal Timorese workers in Australia have had their visas extended to lessen the burden on their country's health system.
DFAT has repatriated nine Timorese doctors from Fiji to bolster local health services and an additional $10 million in aid has been earmarked for the country to address the emerging impacts of COVID-19.
The Australian Federal Police have also helped establish temporary police stations at quarantine facilities.