Health

An island nation covered in ash now worries about a COVID intrusion

International
efforts to deliver aid were being hampered Tuesday by an ash cloud over the
country’s main airport, damaged communication lines and one less obvious
long-term threat: the risk of foreigners bringing COVID into a country without
the virus.

The
communications void three days after the eruption on Saturday night had left
the extent of the damage unclear. But in the first official update on Tuesday
night, the government in Tonga said it had begun assessing the eruption’s toll
— confirming that three people had died, including a British national, a
65-year-old woman and a 49-year-old man.

The eruption
caused “a volcanic mushroom plume” and tsunami waves of up to 15 meters, or
nearly 50 feet, that hit the west coasts of several islands. The internet
remained down and communications, which were severed because of eruption, were
limited on the islands, according to the statement.

Search-and-rescue
teams were sent beginning Sunday morning, the statement said, with nearly all
the houses on some hard-hit islands, including Mango, Fonoifua and Nomuka,
damaged or destroyed. The government also said that it had set up evacuation
centers and was supplying relief items. Volcanic ash had “seriously affected”
supplies of clean water.

Australia
and New Zealand have mobilized to deliver assistance by air and sea, as they
have after cyclones and other natural disasters in the region. Any effort to provide
outside help to Tonga, a country of about 100,000 people that shut its borders
in 2020 and has yet to reopen them, will have to overcome logistical hurdles
while protecting a fragile state of public health.

“The
front-of-mind issue has to be: How do we 100 percent ensure that we don’t bring
COVID to this country?” said Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands
Program at the Lowy Institute, an independent think tank in Sydney. “Whatever
good will might be built up by the response would be completely undone if they
bring COVID into Tonga.”

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The
Australian and New Zealand governments say there are safe ways to deliver aid.
Still, ever since the undersea volcano erupted, throwing ash 12 miles into the
air and sending a tsunami to countries across the Pacific, officials and
overseas Tongan families have expressed concern about the risk of international
aid workers causing a COVID outbreak.

Their fears
are an echo of past trauma. Throughout Polynesia, a region of around 1,000
islands spread across the Southern Pacific, disease delivered by outsiders is a
theme that runs through hundreds of years of history.

Regular
contact with Europe’s colonizing forces came relatively late to places like
Tonga — Capt. James Cook toured the archipelago in 1773, 15 years before the
first group of British settled in Australia — but with devastating effect. Over
the following century or so, epidemics of measles, dysentery and influenza,
carried in by Europeans, devastated island communities all over the South
Pacific.

One
historical study published in 2016 found that in Hawaii, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and
Rotuma (a Fiji dependency), the spread of measles alone in the early 19th
century killed up to one-quarter of the population across all ages.

And in
Tonga, another round of death arrived under even more dubious circumstances
with the Spanish flu. In November 1918, according to Phyllis Herda, a historian
at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, a steamship called the Talune is
believed to have introduced the virus because its captain, John Mawson, hid the
risk after leaving Auckland.

When the
ship landed in the Tongan capital, Nuku’alofa, with 71 sick passengers and crew
members, he reportedly gave the order that everyone on board was “to get
dressed and pretend they were not ill,” so the steamer could be unloaded.
Almost 2,000 Tongans died in the outbreak that followed — about 8% of the
population.

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COVID, not
surprisingly, has been viewed through the lens of that experience. Tonga has
reported just one case, in October, and it requires travelers arriving in the
country to quarantine for 21 days. About 60% of the country’s population has
received two doses of a COVID vaccine.

Curtis
Tu’ihalangingie, the deputy head of mission for the High Commission of Tonga in
Australia, said that Tongan officials had been speaking to the Australian and
New Zealand governments and donor partners about how to deliver aid in a
COVID-safe way.

Officials in
both countries have said they plan to be extremely careful when they deliver
water, food and construction supplies.

Speaking at
a news conference on Sunday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand said
the government was mindful of the risks of an outbreak in an otherwise
COVID-free environment.

“All of our
New Zealand defense staff are fully vaccinated, and the reason for that is to
make sure that they are able to deploy safely at a moment’s notice,” she said.
“We will be working with officials on the ground in Tonga to make sure that we
meet any expectations and protocols that they have established.”

Peeni
Henare, the minister of defense, said there were other ways to avoid
transmission.

“We’ve done
a number of operations in the Pacific over the past two years which have been
contactless,” he said, adding that New Zealand would work with its neighbors in
the Pacific islands “to make sure that we continue to keep them safe.”

Aid groups
in Australia and in the region have said they are deferring to governments on
how to best provide assistance.

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“We won’t be
sending anyone unless requested to do so, and at that point will follow
guidance as required,” said Katie Greenwood, who leads the Pacific office of
the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

She added
that the Red Cross had about 70 volunteers in Tonga, with access to enough
relief supplies for about 1,200 households, including tarpaulins,
shelter-building kits and blankets.

Whether that
would be enough was still hard to tell. A New Zealand Defense Force flight to
Tonga, scheduled for Tuesday, was delayed because of ash on the runway.

With Tonga’s
international internet cable disabled, the satellite phones at the New Zealand
and Australian government offices there were some of the only methods for
communication at a time when the overseas Tongan community was desperate for
information.

Tu’ihalangingie,
the Tongan diplomat in Australia, said it would be weeks before phone or
internet connections to the outside world were fully restored.

“We still
have limited access to Tonga,” he told ABC Radio in Australia. “We still don’t
have a direct communication with our government.”

 

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New York Times Company

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