No mountain too high when it comes to fighting COVID-19 in Timor-Leste

A dedicated team of young public health students helping raise awareness on COVID-19 prevention

UNICEF Timor-Leste
No mountain too high when it comes to fighting COVID-19 in Timor-Leste
UNICEF Timor-Leste/2021/Galvin
19 February 2021

High up in the hills above Dili city, a group of young volunteers go door-to-door, sharing information on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

The group - mostly final-year Public Health students – have been specially trained by the Ministry of Health in how to effectively carry out social mobilization and help bring essential information to families so they can protect themselves from COVID-19. They are equipped with various posters and stickers, developed by the Ministry of Health, with support from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and World Health Organization (WHO), which they hand out to community members and affix to the sides of buildings. 

In the village of Tankai, brightly coloured flowers bloom in home gardens as piglets wrestle in the dirt and curious children peek out from behind doorways. It would be easy to feel a world away from the worst of the pandemic, but bottles of hand sanitizer and plenty of the prevention posters plastered around the village are a reminder that no place has been left unaffected by COVID-19.

“We had heard about the virus on the news and via announcements made form vehicles that would pass through our village,” says Tankai local Fernanda de Jesus Sarmento. “But we didn’t know or follow all the prevention methods until now.”

No mountain too high when it comes to fighting COVID-19 in Timor-Leste2
UNICEF Timor-Leste/2021/Galvin
Fernanda de Jesus Sarmento says she has noticed a marked change in people's hygiene behaviors since learning about COVID-19 prevention methods.

“Before all of this awareness, we never really washed our hands,” Fernanda says. “But now we know that it is important, and we have a permanent water supply now too, so a lot more people are washing their hands throughout the day.”

Wrapping up their work in Tankai, the group of young social mobilizers pauses on the hillside to reflect on the past seven days they have spent visiting 43 villages. They say that in the city, people sometimes tend to avoid talking to them, assuming it would be a time-consuming activity. But in more rural areas, they say, people are much more receptive and open to listening.

Anna Maria Guterres is the Ministry’s Health Promotion Officer tasked with overseeing this group of volunteers. She says they are the ideal conduits for sharing this information with communities.

“They are well trained in public health matters thanks to their studies,” she says. “Plus, they have boosted the human resources at the Ministry, communities respond well to them, and they are really engaged. It’s working out well.”

It is essential work that the group is carrying out. Timor-Leste currently has a number of active cases. As of mid-February 2021, the country has had no deaths, but the threat of community transmission is a concern as border closures have resulted in numerous illegal entries.

“Overall, I think communities are concerned due to the increasing case numbers,” Anna says. “That’s why this information dissemination is so important – to fortify prevention behaviors so that we don’t see any community transmission here in Timor-Leste.”

UNICEF’s support to social mobilization and community engagement has been wide ranging and included supporting the Ministry of Health to develop prevention messaging in video, audio, sign language, braille and song formats. UNICEF has also helped ensure messages are assessible to community members through community radio, television and radio stations with national coverage, through social media and provision of communications equipment to health centers.

“We have been continuing to raise awareness on COVID-19 prevention measures since early last year on community radio, health centers, and using the mobile speaker systems UNICEF provided,” says Abrão Pinto, the District Public Health Officer. “We find that this door-to-door mobilization helped reinforce messages and also helps with ensuring community members really understand the messages and why they need to maintain the safety protocols.”

This COVID-19 social mobilization work led by the Ministry of Health and supported by UNICEF is thanks to generous funding from USAID.