Self-Isolation and Toilet Paper Shortages are Hard.
But What Happens When We Stop Travelling and Working in Developing Countries?
I am in Dili right now. I have been here for a couple of weeks and the organization that I was working for has decided it’s time for me to go home. It’s been three hours since the first positive case of COVID-19 was declared.
In Dili, we have spent the last couple of weeks saying goodbye – to friends and colleagues who work with organizations that are sending them home, when it seems safer to be Timor-Leste. To friends and colleagues in high-risk groups who need to have access to world-class medical care if they do contract COVID-19. To friends and colleagues who live half a world away and know that this might be the last opportunity to be able to get home for at least six months. Those who are staying, both locals and foreigners, are wondering what happens next.
In the past few weeks, UN bodies, the government and other organizations have spent time preparing the population for the imminent effects of both the disease itself and the changes that will be wrought in the wake of this virulent pandemic. Hand-washing stations have popped up all over the city, while priests have preached sermons for physical distance and positive hygiene practices. Face masks, which have always been a feature for motorbike riders in this dusty country, have become a more conspicuous sign of being considerate of others’ health, most noticeably on the minibus microlets that are the public transport system.
As in bigger metropolises, restaurants are moving to take-away and food-delivery options, and schools are closing or moving to online teaching. Unlike other metropolises, however, there is plenty of fresh food and other supplies (except hand sanitizer) in the markets and shops. Despite not knowing how long this will last, no one is hoarding or panic buying toilet paper – so I still don’t need to perfect the art of washing rather than wiping!
We don’t know what happens next with the virus. We don’t know what will happen to a population where so many people (mainly women) already have respiratory problems from too many hours cooking in smoky kitchens over open fires. We don’t know if the few people who managed to survive war and famine to live into their seventies – including many of the country’s political leaders – will succumb to this virus. We don’t know if the virus can be contained in a country where people live 10 to a house and not working is unthinkable. We feel lucky that this is the wet season and there is plenty of water, although dealing with unprecedented floods at the same time is a challenge.
We do know that the gap that the foreign workers and volunteers leave in their wake as they head for home will have a huge impact on the economy – local restaurants, landlords and development programs will all struggle to maintain their existence. Local staff will lose their jobs and progress towards a healthy, well-educated, thriving society will lose momentum. And lives will be lost, not just to the viral disease but to hunger and despair.
In the midst of toilet paper shortages and memes about homeschooling (yep, I am laughing way too hard at those), remember that the world that we want to be travelling in might need your support – and now more than ever. This world is changing; it’s scary. There will be pressure to stop foreign aid, and you will probably wonder if helping developing countries really is our responsibility. But if you want to travel when this is all over, if you want to see wildlife and astounding cultural practices, and if you want to hike mountain trails and share meals with local communities, then this is the time to consider how you can contribute to helping those communities to maintain their unique ways of life.
About the author – Dr Kate Neely
I am a water, sanitation and hygiene expert who has worked on and off in Timor-Leste for eight years. I have seen so many changes over that time as schooling and health care, water and good nutrition have started to reach all parts of the country. The potential to lose those gains, and also to lose the cultural knowledge that rests with the elderly people in this beautiful country, leaves me saddened. I am currently holding on to the hope that I can stay in Timor-Leste and help see this thing through – but like other foreigners here, I have a home and family elsewhere, and a government that is closing its borders. I don’t know what happens next, but I hope that we all come out of this with a stronger sense of global community and a renewed desire to help each other.