Chris Barrett, Singapore – Already facing a worrying new COVID-19 outbreak, Timor Leste has been hit by devastating flooding and landslides, claiming the lives of at least 11 people, destroying roads, bridges and houses and leaving the capital Dili under water.
The south-east Asian nation's Secretary of State for Civil Protection, Joaquim Gusmao Martins, told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on Sunday authorities were trying to separate the many displaced residents at evacuation centres on the advice of health officials in a bid to contain the virus.
Dili's population of 220,000 was ordered into lockdown last month along with the cities of Baucau and Viqueque following a concerning surge in community transmission.
The country had previously withstood the pandemic well – and still has not recorded a coronavirus death. But on the back of a spike in cases in recent weeks the natural disaster in Dili and on the south coast poses another major challenge for Australia's close neighbours.
Overhead footage shot by drone operator Machel Silveira gave an impression of the extent of the flooding in the capital and Martins said late on Sunday there had been 11 people killed and more than 500 houses damaged or destroyed so far.
On Monday, Timor Leste is due to receive its first batch of the vaccine via the COVAX facility for development nations. But whether a plane with the AstraZeneca doses on board can land will depend on the state of the flood-prone Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport.
"We are hoping to receive the vaccine tomorrow if the airport is not flooded," Martins said.
He said authorities were better prepared to deal with the rising waters after floods last year prompted them to created six permanent evacuation centres in Dili. Schools, closed during the lockdown, were also being used to accommodate evacuees.
However, the rising numbers of those with the virus – a month ago Timor Leste had seen little more than 100 total cases during the pandemic and the number is now more than 700 – add a major complication to the response.
Martins said he had met on Sunday with the Ministry of Health and the Integrated Crisis Management Centre, which have run the country's handling of COVID-19, about the need to keep people socially distanced in the shelters.
"Now we have the inputs from the crisis centre to separate the clusters at the [evacuation] centres. Now we're working on this," he said.
Alex Tilman, a United Nations development coordinator in Timor Leste, posted a photograph of a flooded warehouse he said was due to house the vaccine after its arrival on Monday.
"Many of the roads have been destroyed, bridges are also destroyed, there are a lot of houses going under water," Tilman told the Herald and The Age.
"I think the extent of it will be really great. And this is on top of the COVID-19 crisis that we are facing. There has been a lot of local transmission.
"The vaccine is due tomorrow but the airport is also prone to flooding so with this much rain, if the water does not recede from the airport by tomorrow, I don't know how the plane is going to be able to land."
Reuters reported the presidential palace in Dili was among the buildings flooded. The agency said 23 people on the Indonesian island of Flores had also been killed in flash flooding.
Timor Leste borders Indonesia, where more than 1.53 million people have tested positive for the virus over the past year and there have been more than 41,000 virus-related deaths, making it the country hardest hit by the pandemic in south-east Asia.