Responding to COVID-19 among remote communities in Manufahi

man in mask holds sign across form a woman seated who is learning about COVID-19 prevention

Above: WaterAid staff share handwashing messages with a community member in Manufahi (WaterAid Australia)


Preventing the spread of COVID-19 requires strong and urgent action to protect the most vulnerable. In Timor-Leste only 28% of the population has access to handwashing facilities with soap and water.


This is a global emergency, but for people who are unable to access safe water and handwashing facilities, the simple task of washing your hands to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is all but impossible, which puts these communities at greater risk. 


WaterAid is supporting a strong response to COVID-19 in their Water for Women project communities Timor-Leste. They are focusing their support to help people in these communities to reduce the spread of COVID-19, this includes:

  • Providing education to locals about low cost solutions for developing hand wash station
  • Providing information on how to make soap from locally, available materials, to enable handwashing with soap and water.
  • Conducting direct community outreach - WaterAid staff have been visiting rural communities to spread World Health Organisation and National Department of Health awareness messaging to prepare locals for COVID-19.


WaterAid is creating COVID-19 specific responses by providing national communications, information, materials and training on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) to frontline health workers and health posts in rural areas.


An update from the field: WaterAid Timor-Leste


When the COVID-19 pandemic reached Timor-Leste, Francisca and her team quickly expanded their work with communities to respond.


The WaterAid team works closely with local government and partner organisations Strive for the Future (F-LBF), Women for Sustainable Action (FAS) and Strive for Change (LBM). Facing the current global pandemic, WaterAid Timor-Leste has been urgently scaling up their hygiene work. The messages for preventing COVID-19 are simple: wash your hands thoroughly and regularly with soap, cough into your elbow and maintain distance from others.


But ensuring these simple messages get to the most remote households in Manufahi municipality is challenging. Many villages are hard to reach, and the team have to broadcast information from speakers on the back of their motorbikes, as they ride the muddy mountain roads from village to village.


In the communities where WaterAid and partners work, Francisca has relayed that many people are understandably scared. They have heard about COVID-19 and know that is has killed many people around the world. In this climate, misinformation has spread. Our team have reported that people think traditional practices, such as eating bitter-tasting food, will protect them from getting sick. The team has had to work hard to ensure people get accurate information about how to stop the spread of COVID-19.


A WASH response is a COVID-19 response


WaterAid Manufahi team and their partners have run community demonstrations on how to properly wash hands with soap, and the critical times to do it. They have also taken the opportunity to remind people of other important health messages, such as always using a toilet rather than openly defecating and treating their water before drinking it.


Francisca and the team have also been heavily involved in the institutional response. Alongside other WaterAid and partner staff, Francisca is a member of the Municipal Administration’s technical taskforce for COVID-19, responsible for coordinating with non-government organisations in the municipality. On 1 May, Francisca appeared on a talk show about the Manufahi Municipal COVID-19 taskforce’s efforts. The talk reached many people, as it was shown on the national television broadcaster, RTTL, while also being simulcast on community radio and Facebook livestream.


After finishing the talk show, the WaterAid team and F-LBF, FAS and LBM staff handed over six large water tanks, 15 disinfectant tanks, soap, PPE and bleach to the head of the taskforce. Provision of these materials was funded through the Australian Government’s Water for Women Fund and have been installed at healthcare centres, markets and schools across the municipality.


Through this work, many more communities in Manufahi are now well prepared for COVID-19. They have the information, and infrastructure in place to practice good hygiene and stop the spread of the virus.


Francisca Sarmento is WaterAid’s program manager in Manufahi, where their Water for Women project, Beyond Inclusion: realising gender transformational change and sustainable wash systems is being delivered. This blog originally appeared on WaterAid's website and has been edited by Water for Women.

Through Partnerships for Recovery, Australia is supporting COVID-19 work across in South East Asia to secure our region’s health, wellbeing and stability in these challenging times. Through Water for Women, not only are we delivering safe, equitable and sustainable Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), we are also building, healthy, inclusive and resilient societies. 


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