Covered in ash, Tonga now fears the arrival of the pandemic in a Covid-free country
SYDNEY.- After the epic volcanic eruption and subsequent tsunami that rocked the island kingdom of Tongafinally started island clean-up and evacuation operations. After days of absolute silence, the island nation’s government spoke of a “unprecedented disaster” and the first aerial photos emerged showing that those normally green islands are now covered in dust and ash.
International efforts to deliver aid were hampered by a dense cloud of ash blanketing the country’s main airport on Tuesday, as well as downed power lines and a less obvious long-term threat: the risk of foreigners bringing Covid into a country that was hitherto free of the virus.
Until Tuesday morning, the extent of the damage was actually unknown, due to the failure of communications across the island after the eruption on Saturday night. But in the first official update on Tuesday night, the Tongan government reported that the head count had begun and confirmed the death of three people: a British citizen, a 65-year-old woman and a 49-year-old man.
The eruption caused “a mushroom-shaped volcanic plume” and tsunami waves of up to 15 meters high that hit the western coasts of several islands. The Internet service was still down and communications were working in a limited way in the various islands of the country.
Also according to the government statement, search and rescue teams were dispatched on Sunday morning, and it was confirmed that almost all the houses on the most affected islands, such as Mango, Fonoifua and Nomuka, were damaged or virtually destroyed. The government also reported the opening of evacuation centers and the distribution of emergency items. The volcanic ash, he noted, “has severely affected” the supply of drinking water.
Australia and New Zealand have mobilized to bring aid by air and sea, as they have done on other occasions, after the onslaught of cyclones and other natural disasters common in the region. Any effort to provide foreign aid to Tonga, a country of some 100,000 people that closed its borders in 2020 and has not yet reopened them, will have to overcome logistical obstacles, without neglecting the country’s fragile health balance.
“The first thing that should concern us is to be 100% sure that we will not introduce the coronavirus into the country”says Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute, an independent Sydney think tank. “Any gesture of goodwill that this catastrophe may bring about will come to naught if they bring the virus to the island.”
The Australian and New Zealand governments say there are safe ways to deliver aid. Still, since the undersea volcano erupted, spewing ash 100,000 feet and triggering a tsunami that hit countries across the Pacific, Tongan officials and families living abroad have raised concerns about the risk that international humanitarian workers are causing a Covid outbreak on the island.
And those fears are a reflection of the traumatic situations of the past. Throughout Polynesia, a region of around 1,000 islands dotted by the South Pacific, diseases brought by people who come from outside are a subject with hundreds of years of history.
Regular contact with colonizing forces from Europe came relatively late in places like Tonga – Captain James Cook sailed the archipelago in 1773, 15 years before the first group of British settled in Australia – but its effects were nonetheless devastating. During the following century, successive epidemics of measles, dysentery, and influenza, all diseases brought by Europeans, swept through island communities throughout the South Pacific.
A landmark study published in 2016 revealed that in In Hawaii, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, and Rotuma (a Fijian dependency), the spread of measles in the early 19th century claimed the lives of a quarter of the population of islanders of all ages.
With the Spanish flu, another round of deaths also came to Tonga in even more dubious circumstances. According to Phyllis Herda, a historian at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, the virus is believed to have arrived from the Spanish flu in Tonga in November 1918 aboard a steamship called the Talune, whose captain, John Mawson, had concealed the risk. of contagion when sailing from Auckland.
When the Talune docked in the port of Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital, with 71 sick passengers and crew, Mawson reportedly gave the order that everyone on board “dressed up and pretended not to be sick”, so that the steamer could be unloaded. Nearly 2,000 Tongans, about 8% of the island’s population, died in the outbreak that broke out in the weeks that followed.
So it is not surprising that Covid is being evaluated in light of that unfortunate experience. So far, Tonga has reported a single positive Covid case, last October, and requires that travelers arriving in the country quarantine for 21 days. About 60% of the country’s population has received two doses of one of the coronavirus vaccines.
Curtis Tu’ihalangingie, deputy chief of Tonga’s High Commission in Australia, said Tonga officials are in communication with the Australian and New Zealand governments and donor partners to arrange for aid delivery in a safe way that does not compromise the health status of the island.
Humanitarian aid organizations in Australia and the rest of the region reported that they have left governments to decide how best to help.
“We will not send anyone unless they ask us to, and if necessary we will act as indicated”says Katie Greenwood, director of the Pacific office of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Grenwood added that the Red Cross has around 70 volunteers in Tonga, with access to enough emergency supplies to help around 1,200 households, including tarpaulins, self-build shelter kits, blankets and mattresses.
Hard to know if it will be enough. A New Zealand Defense Force flight to Tonga scheduled for Tuesday was postponed due to ash buildup on the runway.
With the failure of Tonga’s international internet cable, the satellite phones of the New Zealand and Australian delegations were the only means of communication on the island, while the world was on edge waiting for information.
Tu’ihalangingie, Tongan diplomatic delegate to Australia, said that it will be weeks before internet service or phone connections to the outside world are fully restored.
“Communications with the island remain limited,” the diplomat told ABC Radio in Australia. “We still don’t have direct communication with our government.”
By Damien Cave and Isabella Kwai
The New York Times
(Translation by Jaime Arrambide)