Xanana Gusmão slaps mourners and sleeps in street outside Timor-Leste hospital in Covid-19 protest

The former prime minister of Timor-Leste Xanana Gusmão has been filmed slapping family members of a man who died in the capital, Dili, in what the government said was the country’s second Covid-related death.

Gusmão – the young country’s first president and a national hero – disputes the government’s assertion that Armindo Borges, who died aged 47 on Sunday night, died from Covid-19, with Gusmão claiming he died from a stroke. Borges’s body has been kept in the Covid isolation room at the Vera Cruz health centre.

Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the health centre on Monday, including Borges’s son. A video shows Gusmão arriving at the centre and repeatedly slapping the son in the face and also repeatedly and angrily slapping a woman, believed to be Borges’s sister. She is weeping as he hits her.

Gusmão said he had hit them because he believed their angry protests outside the hospital were not the way to get the action they wanted.

“You guys don’t scream here,” Xanana told local television channel RTTL he explained to Borges’s son. “Please be quiet, don’t make a fuss. You also don’t scream, have to be quiet. Your father is dead, and you must not scream.”

Xanana said he did not accept the government’s explanation that Borges died from Covid. “To convince the public to believe in Covid-19, the government must work well,” he said. “Otherwise the people will say we lied to them …

“I am also following the development of Covid-19 in the world, I know, but the situation that is happening here makes me disbelieve.”

Timor-Leste has recorded two deaths and just shy of 1,100 cases of Covid, according to the World Health Organization, with cases escalating dramatically since the beginning of March.

Gusmão spent Monday and Tuesday carrying a coffin in the street outside the national hospital in Dili, opposing the country’s handling of the pandemic.

Along with other protesters, and some members of the Borges family, he spent two nights sleeping in the street outside the hospital to prevent Borges’s body from being taken for burial, rather than it being returned to his village in keeping with custom.

Lourdes de Jesus, Borges’s daughter said that on Sunday about 6pm, her father had suddenly had a stroke which made his face swell up, and then they had called an ambulance to take him to the national hospital.

They arrived at the emergency room where medics carried out a swab test, which she said had taken 15 minutes. The results showed that Borges had Covid. Doctors immediately placed him in an isolation room, where he died.

“He got Covid-19 in just 15 minutes, and my father died right away, poor thing,” the daughter said. “Now his body is swollen in the isolation room.”

The government had nominated a place in Metinaro in the eastern part of Dili as a special cemetery for Covid victims and was seeking to bury him there. But the family, with support from Gusmão, have demanded he be taken to their home for the funeral.

The minister of health, Odete Maria Freitas Belo, and the country’s top military commander, Lere Anan Timur, have met with Gusmão to try to convince him to allow the government to bury the body. Gusmão has maintained his view that the government should hand over the body to the family.

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