Ryan Dagur – Xanana Gusmao, Timor-Leste's independence hero and former prime minister and president, has been at the center of a protest demanding the release of the body of man who health authorities claim died of Covid-19 while his family claim he died of a stroke.
Authorities said Armindo Borges, 46, tested positive for Covid-19 before dying in hospital on April 11 and would therefore be buried according to protocols in force for Covid-19 patients. He is listed as the second patient to die from Covid-19 in the country.
However, his family and Gusmao dispute the claim, stating that he died of a hemorrhagic stroke that he suffered before being taken to hospital. They want his body to be returned to the family.
Together with Borges' family, Gusmao staged a protest in front of the Vera Cruz Isolation Center in Dili, where the body has been kept since April 12.
Gusmao told state news agency Tatoli that, since the patient was at home before being taken to hospital, "how do they say he is infected with Covid-19?"
He quoted the family of the deceased that Borges started to bleed from his mouth and nose before being taken to hospital. I respect this measure but I do not accept that the patient has died due to the virus
"It is the hospital's protocol to carry out the Covid-19 test on those who are sick to avoid contamination. I respect this measure but I do not accept that the patient has died due to the virus," Gusmao said.
In a number of photos that have gone viral on social media, Gusmao is wearing shorts and a T-shirt while sleeping for two nights in front of the center.
Two officials from the Representative of the United Nations in Timor-Leste met with Gusmao, who told them the protest "has no intention against the government."
"It is not that I am not worried about the coronavirus. I have visited many places since last year to help this government and I have never tried to stop this government. I want to help the government to prevent the virus, but it must be with the right thing," he said.
Portuguese-language Agencia Lusa reported that the World Health Organization in Timor-Leste has recommended the possibility of some flexibility in the burial process to overcome the controversy, taking into account certain aspects such as the dignity of death, traditions and culture that should be respected. However, the final decision remains with the government.
The state must be precise and ready to defend the constitution and the law
Health Minister Odete Maria Freitas Belo said while visiting the isolation center on April 14 that they were waiting for the results of the Council of Ministers' decision regarding this case.
Mari Alkatiri, a former prime minister and Gusmao's political opponent, uploaded a photo to his Facebook profile of Minister Belo facing Gusmao, saying that "the state must be precise and ready to defend the constitution and the law."
Ruben Goncalves, a resident of Dili, said the controversy had split society even further. "On the one hand, the government continues to emphasize that Covid-19 is dangerous. However, on the other hand, more and more people are apathetic, especially seeing this controversy," he said.
The number of Covid-19 cases in the Catholic-majority country is growing, with total cases reaching 1,086 on April 13. Of that number, 544 are active cases.