January 29, 2023

Tsunami-hit Tonga goes into lockdown after workers helping deliver aid catch Covid | Tonga volcano

Tonga will go into lockdown after recording two Covid-19 cases among port workers helping distribute international aid in the wake of the volcanic eruption and tsunami that devastated the Pacific country last month.

The cases seem to confirm fears among Tongan officials that the arrival of aid could bring an outbreak of the virus, which could represent a bigger danger to Tonga than the tsunami.

The prime minister, Siaosi Sovaleni, said the lockdown, which begins at 6pm on Wednesday, will be open-ended, but will last for at least 48 hours, at which point it will be reviewed.

The nationwide lockdown will require people to stay at home, with only essential services allowed to operate. Since the lockdown was announced, people have been scrambling to get supplies, with photographs emerging of queues down the street outside banks and shops, as people seek to get cash and food.

Tonga is still reeling from the eruption of the undersea Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano on 15 January, which sent gas 20km into the air, prompted a tsunami, with waves reaching 15 meters (49ft), and blanketed the country in ash.

Three people died in Tonga as a result of the tsunami and the Tongan government estimates that 84% of people in the country have been affected by it. In some islands and villages, every single house was destroyed by the tsunami.

International aid has been arriving in Tonga since the disaster, with ships and planes arriving from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Britain and China.

The delivery of humanitarian relief supplies, including bulk water, hygiene kits and shelters, had aimed to be contactless.

Tonga has remained Covid-free for much of the pandemic, reporting just a single case in a returning traveler in October. Travel to Tonga usually requires incoming travelers to spend three weeks in quarantine.

The case in Octoberwhich also led to a lockdown, prompted a huge jump in vaccination rates in Tonga, with the government confirming that the number of those who were fully vaccinated went from around 35% before the first case was confirmed to 62% four days later.

More than 20 cases of Covid-19 were reported among sailors around the HMAS Adelaide, which departed Australia for Tonga with supplies in the week following the eruption. There have also been Covid infections among crew members on aid flights from Japan and Australia.

Tonga turned back an aid flight from Australia due to a positive Covid case on board.

Small Pacific nations, including Kiribati and Palau, were among the last places to have remained Covid-free, due to their remoteness and strict bans on international travel. However, in the last month, outbreaks of Covid-19 have swept through many Pacific nations, including Samoa, Solomon Islands, Kiribati, and Palau. Just a handful of the very smallest Pacific countries – Tuvalu, Nauru, and Cook Islands – are still Covid-free.

The lockdown in Tonga comes as many homes and businesses remain without internet access after the tsunami severed the sole fiber-optic cable that connects Tonga to the rest of the world. Officials are hoping repairs will be completed within a week or two.

About 61% of Tonga’s 105,000 people are fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data.