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Australian doctor in East Timor warns of impact coronavirus could have if it spreads there

Helping hands: Dr Josh Francis has been helping local health workers learn how to treat COVID-19.(Supplied: Menzies School Of Health Research)

AN Australian doctor on the frontline of treating COVID-19 in East Timor, has called on his trust in God to help him, warning of the “devastating” impact if the virus spreads in the vulnerable nation.

East Timor, a predominantly Catholic country of 1.2 million people, has been in a state of emergency since the end of March, and is relying heavily on international health assistance.

Dr Josh Francis, a paediatric infectious disease specialist, originally from Brisbane, is helping to establish testing procedures inside the country’s national hospital in Dili.

“There are many Timorese who are praying about the situation here and the situation globally, and I am too on a daily basis,” Dr Francis said.

Although East Timor has recorded only 22 COVID-19 cases so far, Dr Francis said, there were “grave concerns” about the damage the spread of coronavirus could cause amongst a population where 40 per cent of people lived in poverty.

“The reality is that if and when it does spread through the community – people do live in close quarters in large family groups – we are preparing for the fact that it could be very difficult and even devastating here,” he said.

Dr Francis, a father of four, based at the Royal Darwin Hospital, travels often to East Timor’s capital, Dili, as part of a Menzies School of Health Research program to strengthen infection prevention and control, clinical management, and surveillance and outbreak response.

The first test of a suspected COVID-19 case was carried out with assistance from the Menzies School, and then air-freighted to Royal Darwin Hospital for analysis. 

As COVID-19 continues to spread through nearby countries, there are growing fears East Timor could be overwhelmed by an outbreak.

Dr Francis said he would struggle to work in Timor Leste if he was not able to “trust God day by day”.

“It is quite confronting really how little resources there are compared to the things we take for granted in Australia,” he said.

“I do trust in God and have a lot in common with people here who I think of as family.”

Dr Josh Francis: “There are many Timorese who are praying about the situation here and the situation globally, and I am too on a daily basis.”

Hand washing stations have been set up outside markets and shops and every effort taken to promote social distancing.

East Timor’s ambassador to Australia, Inês Maria de Almeida, said her country was taking decisive action but was preparing for the worst.

“We have a very weak health system … to hear the stories and pleas (of people back home) is really sad, but we will do our best,” she told the ABC.

“We are counting on the support of the Australian people who have helped us through difficult times. Sadly we have to knock on their doors again to say Timor-Leste is desperate.”

Dr Francis said a number of international organisations offering health care services, including the St John of God, were part of efforts to prepare East Timor for a pandemic.

“We are continuing with the health system strengthening and implementation research work, which is focused on infectious diseases diagnosis, surveillance and public health responses,” he said.

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