“They knew it wasn’t a regular occurrence; it was a foreign fishing boat. But the overarching threat of COVID-19 was their main worry,” says Gosling, who has spent the past three years helping the country prepare for major crises.
As team leader and senior adviser with the Australian Defence Co-operation Program, the 24-year career soldier worked with the Timorese Defence and Police Forces to create the nation’s first Integrated Crisis Management Centre.
The program included visits by officials to Australian crisis coordination centres, development of protocols for response and recovery and even purchase of office and telecommunications equipment to set up a radio command post, back-up power and water supply.
Lucky for Timor-Leste, when the epidemic burst the borders of Europe and countries everywhere pressed “play” on their emergency response, it was ready.
Its centre was up and running in 48 hours and a COVID-19 taskforce had been fully assembled. Its members were the only senior people the Timorese would trust, including former prime minister and medical doctor Rui de Araujo, former ambassador to Australia Abel Guterres and former minister of foreign affairs and doctor Aurelio Guterres, headed by current PM Taur Matan Ruak who unresigned days earlier.
Dr Sarina Kilham, rural sociology lecturer at Charles Sturt University and former long-term resident of Timor-Leste, says the government did a “stellar job” to manage conspiracy theories and convince citizens of the virus threat.
“They have been through a couple of crises in the past few years. They know that rumours and misinformation are a big problem in driving people’s behaviour.
“One of the first things they did was set up a Facebook page and have people manage it whose whole job is misinformation mitigation,” she says, adding that Facebook works as the pseudo-internet in the country.
With a population of 1.3 million and fewer than 10 intensive care beds, the government knew the health system would be quickly overwhelmed if there was a substantial outbreak.
Gosling says the country, which has recorded 24 cases, no deaths and no cases since April 24, did an “outstanding job” and benefited from declaring a state of emergency and closing borders early.
Airports and ports were closed and testing procedures started at the land border with Indonesia which opened only a few times a week. Timorese students returning from there brought the few cases home but were immediately put into quarantine hotels.
“They saw on the news how serious the pandemic was and how it was affecting the UK, USA, China and Italy, and they thought if they were overwhelmed they were going to be in a lot of trouble because they have a developing health system,” Gosling says.
As lockdowns forced businesses in the cities to close, people returned to their homes on the surrounding hillsides. To stop the virus spreading to rural areas, road blocks were set up so cars could be sprayed and people could wash hands and be taught how to wear a mask.
On June 12, Gosling watched a well-oiled operation unfold on the beach. Word quickly got back to the crisis management centre, and shortly after, health workers and border officials descended on the sand with personal protective equipment, sanitiser, thermometers and testing kits.
All newcomers were fully screened for the virus, then placed in hotel quarantine to be deported to Indonesia and Vietnam after 14 days.
“I was very impressed with how [the Timorese] came together,” Gosling said. “They had all the protective equipment on, were maintaining their distance, [doing] the reporting.”
Australia’s contribution, including that of charities such as UNICEF and friendships groups, was a big factor in the country’s success against the pandemic.
“Australia was one of the countries that started helping very early with training health workers, helping with equipment and through the Defence Co-operation agreement,” Dr Guterres says.
“Lt Col Dan Gosling’s contribution was very important, especially in the technical coordination of the crisis centre. He is very familiar with Timor and its people.”
Gosling has had a long love affair with the country, ever since he was an infantry platoon commander, part of the International Force East Timor (InterFET) in 1999.
The multinational peacemaking mission was mandated by the United Nations and led by Australia to stabilise the young nation after the independence referendum met with attacks by militias directed by the Indonesian military. He was second in command as part of peacekeeping operations in Balibo 2002, and the 2005 documentary Debt of Honour is based on the work of his infantry company.
Three of eight Gosling siblings and their father have long associations with the country. His brother, Luke, Labour MP for Solomon in the Northern Territory, and their father ran a charity there for years helping run maternal health and education programs. Their younger brother, Xavier, was deployed there, also as part of InterFET as an Australian Navy sailor.
Together, Luke and Dan have raced on foot, bike and kayaks to raise funds for charitable causes, and organised international sport competitions and music concerts to promote close Australian-Timor Leste ties.
“In 2003, my brother Luke and I … wanted to make a documentary on Australia’s military relationship with Timor from WWII through to InterFET/UN, and we challenged each other to a race to Dili for the Restoration of Independence Day.”
Dan ran 295 kilometres across the country to Dili, while Luke kayaked and sailed from Darwin, then mountain biked to the capital. The race took seven days.
“We miraculously met in Dili on May 20 and crossed the finish line together with the Timorese Olympic marathon runner Aguida Amaral,” he recalls.
He’s been deployed to the country on and off for 20 years, supporting the development of Timor-Leste’s own battalions and most recently, as senior adviser to its Defence Force. He’s received a Medal of Merit from then president Jose Ramos Horta and calls the country’s first prime minister, Xanana Gusmao, a friend.
“I feel very proud and honoured to be part of this combined team. It is great to be here now and see how far the country has progressed, and their efforts during this crisis are an example of the strength and talent of the people.”
Now the state of emergency has ended and the crisis team handed ongoing management of the pandemic to health authorities, there is only one job left for Gosling after his deployment finishes later this year and he returns with his wife, Hayley, and their six children to Melbourne.
“Come back as the defence attache … hopefully,” he says. “As close neighbours and friends, our relationship with Timor-Leste is very important. “
Lia is Deputy Foreign Editor at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald