Learning from Ritual: COVID-19 Public Health Measures and Messaging in Timor-Leste

Susanna Barnes, Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Saskatchewan


Impacts and Responses in Indonesia and Timor-Leste


In this paper, I reflect on the significance of ritual activity directed towards COVID-19 in Timor-Lest. What, if anything, it tells us about East Timorese beliefs and attitudes regarding infectious disease and why understanding the cultural dimensions of infectious disease are critical to public health responses. For the majority of the population of Timor-Leste, especially those living in rural areas, lived experiences of illness and disease are interpreted primarily through and by customary beliefs and practices. Drawing on social media posts and press media circulated widely in Timor-Leste and among East Timorese diaspora, I examine the scope and content of COVID-19 rituals in Timor-Leste. I argue that the rituals directed towards COVID-19 demonstrate a clear understanding of the nature of infection, contamination, disease, models of causality, and fears around infection. They also reveal local capacities to contain epidemics and the ability to learn with the bio-medical response. The levels of participation observed in COVID-19 rituals online and local support for these initiatives expressed on social media suggests at the very least that health authorities should engage with local communities in a two-way dialogue to discuss beliefs and existing prevention strategies that can assist and support public health objectives and measures.

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CCSEAS Conference 2021 |