Antonio Sampaio, Dili – Hundreds of people, many of them students, mobbed exit routes out of the Timorese capital Dili on Good Friday seeking to leave the city to escape the difficulties they are experiencing over the covid lockdown.
Citizens and the Timorese press reported large groups at the city's main exit points east, west and south, with many cars concentrated since early Good Friday morning.
The situation was confirmed to Lusa news agency by a government source, which spoke of at least 1000 people involved in the crush.
The secretary-general of Fretilin, the largest party in the Timorese government, yesterday appealed for the creation of "urban exodus" corridors to allow residents in Dili to return to their home towns.
Dr Mari Alkatiri also advocated providing "transport to facilitate travel and carry out health control" and that there each citizen and vehicle leaving the urban health barrier be clearly identified.
"Citizens already tested in Dili should not mix with those not yet tested in the same car," Dr Alkatiri wrote on a Facebook post.
The lockdown situation was tense in Dili, with long rows cars packed at the outlets, Tasi Tolu (west), Manleuana (south) and Hera (east).
'We can't handle Dili living'
"We have to travel to the municipalities. We can't handle living conditions here in Dili," Feliciano Mota, one of the many who tried to leave from Tasi Tolu, told the Timorese agency Tatoli.
The lockdown affects many of Dili's residents, especially students, who rely on regular support from their families in districts, including food, but have not had it since the beginning of the restrictions on March 8.
The executive delivered bags of rice to higher education students, but students complain that assistance is not enough and have asked to be able to return to their families.
Many other Dili inhabitants of experience the same problems, as their socioeconomic situation is precarious and has significantly worsened since the beginning of the lockdown.
The government has deliberated extending the lockdown until at least April 16 due to the steady increase in cases of covid-19, a decision that has alarmed many people, due to the difficult conditions they are going through.
Part of Good Friday's movements were attributed to fake messages that went viral on Facebook and Whatsapp, claiming the lockdown would be lifted temporarily that day and movement would be allowed out of the capital.
Deputy Interior Minister Antonio Armindo told Lusa that despite the great concentration of people – "up to a thousand" – there were no problems recorded so far and that the situation was "controlled".
'I feel the pain'
"I feel the pain people feel, but this is a universal public health issue and we all have to work together," Armindo said.
"We understand that they want to go back, they can't afford food or pay their rent, but the government has put the lockdown in place to avoid the virus spreading and the more movement there is, the greater the risk of pandemic reaching the the municipalities."
Armindo recalled that there was a procedure to apply for permission for travelling to the Integrated Center for Crisis Management (IGC), demanding that some criteria be met, including a negative covid-19. test.
"Some are frustrated, because we have a lot of requests, and that takes time to process, due to the limitations we have. But these measures are essential," he explained.
"We're seeing additional possibilities to help them. They need help but we have to make sure public health is protected because the risk is currently too high. This situation has already occurred in other countries, and flexing a lot has led to many cases and even deaths."
Fidelis Magalhaes, Minister of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, told Lusa that the rules were clear and that there was no opening of the lockdown, which would continue as a measure to stop the spread of the virus.
"The government is making every effort to meet the needs of the population and it has prepared a package of socio-economic support measures already in Parliament," he said.
Timor-Leste is currently experiencing the worst period since the beginning of the pandemic, with 451 active cases in the country – the highest ever, and a total of 643 accumulated cases.
The government approved the renewal of the lockdown and quarantine measures until April 16 in Dili and until April 9 at least in Baucau and Viqueque.
[Antonio Sampaio is the Lusa News Agency bureau chief. This article is republished with permission.]