Preparing for a pandemic

How staff and volunteers at an NGO in Timor-Leste are working around the clock to support the Timorese Government to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Maluk Timor is one of more than 600 organisations the Australian Volunteers Program works with across the Asia-Pacific region. Executive Director Dr Jeremy Beckett explains how the organisation is striving to help improve primary health care in Timor-Leste and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID 19 training workshop at local clinic
COVID19 training workshop at a local health clinic, Dili, Timor-Leste. Supplied: Eleanor MacMorran
Maluk Timor 5
Some of the Maluk Timor team. Supplied: Maluk Timor

Maluk Timor is working towards addressing Timor’s greatest health challenges in three main ways: mentoring and capacity building to empower Timorese health professionals, strengthening healthcare systems across the country, and engaging with the community to foster trust in healthcare and empower people to access quality care. 

We currently have 53 local staff and 20 international volunteers, working across a wide range of areas in support of our nine medical and public health programs. In addition to our program teams, our support staff (administrative, operations, management, communications, finance, kitchen and auxiliary) are invaluable members of the team. 

We have been dedicated to delivering up-to-date COVID-19 training for health professionals throughout Timor-Leste.

Our communications have been primarily focused on COVID-19 education through our social media channels. We’re working towards better public understanding of the virus and prevention of transmission. We’ve launched specific COVID-19 programming and repurposed many of our staff towards it.

We’ve been training doctors and other health staff to ensure clinics are prepared for COVID-19 testing and treatment. With support from partners, we successfully launched a nationwide COVID-19 training program for community health centres, equipping 43 Timorese doctors to deliver training to most than 1,600 health staff across the country.

We have assisted the Timorese Ministry of Health (MOH) with establishing a COVID-19 isolation facility at Vera Cruz (a sub-district in Timor-Leste), launched a COVID-19 training app known as ASTEROID, and created and implemented a Psychological First Aid training for frontline healthcare workers.

Maluk covid pic
Preparing for COVID19 screenings. Supplied: Jessica Harries
Eleanor MacMorran2
Australian volunteer HIV clinic mentor Dr Eleanor MacMorran with colleagues at Maluk Timor. Supplied: Eleanor MacMorran

Our communications team is working incredibly hard to disseminate accurate and up-to-date information which aims to educate and raise awareness of COVID-19, and correct rumours and misinformation.

I’m also proud to say that other members of our team have been focused on making sure regular health services don’t suffer during the pandemic: tuberculosis (TB) patients still need medications, people with rheumatic heart disease (RHD) still need treatment and care. Our staff are finding innovative ways to continue those services. 

As we prepare to meet the challenges of COVID-19, my role focuses on deciding what initiatives to take part in and where to throw our energy. Timor-Leste faces a lot of challenges in preparing for COVID-19, and I’ve got to make sure I balance our dedication and excitement to meet every challenge with a pragmatic understanding of our capacity and which initiatives we can reasonably take on.

Supporting healthcare systems and facilities that might lack access to certain things we take for granted in Australia - equipment, personal protective equipment, even running water - is always a challenge.

It requires me to think outside the box and make sure we are helping local healthcare systems find realistic solutions that make sense both medically and culturally. 

The most rewarding part of my job is working with our extraordinary staff. We’ve worked to assemble an excellent, committed team at Maluk, and I’m genuinely proud of them. I admire the dedication to the mission shown by our local staff and international volunteers. COVID-19 makes working in a healthcare environment and supporting healthcare systems much more pressing, and our teams have been doubling their efforts to rise to the occasion. 

We are fortunate to be supported by an incredible team of international volunteers in all areas of our work. Without the work of Australian volunteers, Maluk would be unable to deliver training and mentorship in an effective, equitable, and sustainable way.

Our Australian volunteers have assisted our TB, RHD, and HIV teams, have had crucial roles in the family medicine training program for Timorese doctors, and have filled various other invaluable administrative and mentorship roles. 

Maluk Timor 3
The Maluk Timor team, Dili, Timor-Leste. Supplied: Maluk Timor