TIMOR-LESTE | Bringing global knowledge during the COVID-19 pandemic to Tetum- and Portuguese-speaking frontline workers

26 May 2021


The World Health Organization (WHO) is committed to making available for free the latest life-saving knowledge to those working and risking their own lives on front lines every day, anywhere. We have learned through our experiences and those of our partners in the field that during any health crises, but especially one like the COVID-19 pandemic, language matters.

This is especially true in countries with populations with limited English proficiency, as is the case in Timor-Leste. Conscious of this need, in June 2020, OpenWHO.org in collaboration with WHO’s Timor-Leste Country Office created and launched its first course in Tetum - one of the country’s national languages.

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, Luís dos Reis, Team Lead – Planning & Programme Management, WHO Health Emergency & Environmental Health, WHO Country Office Timor-Leste, who is an epidemiologist by training, has witnessed first-hand how health care workers are in desperate need of accessing and understanding the intricacies of this new, evolving virus and its impact on populations.

Dos Reis explains that “…while in East Timor only about 30% of the population speaks Portuguese, the language has been assimilated into Tetum and thus, the materials available in Portuguese greatly help us comprehend and adopt to Tetum a completely new vocabulary and technical terminology related to COVID-19.”

In a country with an estimated 23.9 doctors, nurses and midwives per 10 000 inhabitants (2020 HRH Profile, Timor-Leste), growing a skilled and trained health workforce is critical to meet the health needs of the communities. To date, however, many challenges remain.

As Dos Reis explains, “Although the Ministry of Health (MoH) is committed to developing training materials for health care professionals, given the linguistic context, most of the materials are currently available in English. To bridge this gap, the use of Portuguese language content as the one provided by OpenWHO.org helps us to develop and establish an agreed-upon standardized scientific terminology in Tetum. For example, before the pandemic there was no word in Tetum for “contact tracing”; however, through Portuguese language training materials, we were able to successfully adapt the wording to Tetum.”

Today, through this joint effort, out of the 32 COVID-19 topical courses available on the OpenWHO.org platform, 15 were translated into Portuguese and 10 to Tetum. More than just specific training, each course helps advance Timor-Leste’s capacity to handle emergencies in its own terms. Given the country’s unique multilinguistic scenario, the materials have been widely distributed and used in both languages.

OpenWHO.org’s goal is to democratize access to learning that can save lives through the availability of free, low-bandwidth materials in multiple languages. In collaboration with WHO country offices, the production of learning materials in languages that health care workers understand has been essential to support the COVID-19 response in Timor-Leste.

Photo: WHO Timor-Leste

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This page was last changed at Tue, 13 Jul 2021 17:36:40 +0000.