Aid to volcano-stricken Tonga leads to first COVID outbreak and lockdown – Press Telegram

By DAVID RISING and NICK PERRY

BANGKOK (AP) — For more than two years, the isolation of the Pacific archipelago nation of Tonga has helped keep COVID-19 at bay.

But last month’s volcanic eruption and tsunami brought desperately needed supplies of fresh water and medicine – and the virus – outside.

Now the country is in an indefinite lockdown, which residents hope will help contain the small outbreak and won’t last too long.

“We have quite limited resources and our hospitals are quite small,” Tongan business owner Paula Taumoepeau said on Friday. “But I’m not sure any health system can cope. We are lucky to have had two years for our vax rate to be quite high, and we had a fairly immediate lockdown.

Tonga is just one of many Pacific nations to experience its first outbreaks in the past month. All have limited health care resources, and there are fears that the remoteness that once protected them may now make it difficult for them to help.

“Obviously, when you have countries that already have a very strained and fragile health system, when you have an emergency or a disaster and then you have the potential introduction of the virus, that is going to immeasurably worsen an already serious situation. .,” said John Fleming, health officer for Asia-Pacific at the Red Cross.

Tonga was blanketed in ash after the January 15 eruption of the massive Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai undersea volcano, then hit by a subsequent tsunami.

Only three people have been confirmed killed, but several small settlements in outlying islands have been wiped off the map and volcanic ash has contaminated much of the drinking water.

The nation of 105,000 had reported just one case of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic – a missionary from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints returning from Africa via New Zealand who had tested positive in October – and authorities debated whether to let international aid in.

They decided they had to, but despite strict precautions when unloading ships and planes from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Britain and China, two Tongan men who worked at the Queen Salote Wharf in the capital tested positive on Tuesday.

“Tonga is just unlucky this year,” said Samieula Fonua, chairman of Tonga Cable Ltd., the state-owned company that owns the only fiber optic cable linking the country to the rest of the world. “We desperately need good news.”

The two were placed in solitary confinement, but when testing 36 possible contacts, the wife and two children of one also tested positive, while the others tested negative, the local news site reported. Matangi Tonga.

It was unclear how many people might have come into contact with the dockworkers, but the government released a list of places where the virus might have spread, including a church, several shops, a bank and a kindergarten.

Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni imposed an indefinite lockdown from 6 p.m. Wednesday. It could be particularly strenuous for Tongans, as most have no internet connection since the volcanic eruption cut the fiber optic cable to the country.

One of the infected dock workers has since tested negative but remains in quarantine, and 389 others have been cleared of COVID-19, Sovaleni told reporters in Tonga. But he said on Friday that a primary contact with one of the infected people had tested positive and ordered the lockdown to be extended for another 48 hours.

The government mainly communicated with residents through radio addresses, and Fonua said its crews believe they may need to replace an 87-kilometre (54-mile) section of undersea cable. They were hoping to restore service by next week.

It is not yet known which variant of the virus reached Tonga, or who introduced it. Officials stressed that aid deliveries were tightly controlled and there is no evidence yet that the virus came that way.

Sailors aboard the Australian aid ship HMAS Adelaide reported nearly two dozen infections after an outbreak on board, but authorities said it was unloaded at another dock. Crew members aboard aid flights from Japan and Australia have also reported infections.

“People are okay with the lockdown because they understand the reason for it, so corona doesn’t spread in our small country,” said Tulutulu Kalaniuvalu, a 53-year-old former police officer who runs a business. , to the Associated Press. He added that most Tongans depend on the crops they grow on plantations and hope the lockdown will be short-lived.

Experience elsewhere, particularly with the prevalence of the fast-spreading omicron variant, suggests Tonga faces an uphill battle in trying to contain the outbreak, Indonesian epidemiologist Dicky Budiman told the AP. .

According to Our World in Data, some 61% of Tongans are fully immunized, but as the country has yet to experience any infections, there is no natural immunity and it is unclear whether the vaccines have been administered long enough ago that there are now fewer of them. effective, Budiman said.

He recommended that the government immediately start offering boosters and open vaccinations to young children.

“If we race with this virus, we won’t win,” he said in an interview from Australia. “So we have to move forward by protecting the most vulnerable.”

The missionary’s October case with COVID-19 sparked a wave of vaccinations, and 1,000 people have already come forward for a first dose after the current outbreak was detected, Kalaniuvalu said.

Solomon Islands reported its first community outbreak on January 19. With only 11% of its population fully immunized, the virus has spread rapidly, with the Red Cross reporting that less than two weeks later there are now over 780 recorded cases and five COVID-19 related deaths.

Elsewhere, Fiji – still reeling from damage from Cyclone Cody in early January – is battling a continued spike in cases, fueled by omicron, and cases have been reported for the first time in Kiribati, Samoa and Palau.

Palau has almost its entire population fully vaccinated, while Fiji has 68% and Samoa 62%, but Kiribati is only at 33%.

The key to making sure hospitals aren’t overwhelmed is making sure more people get vaccinated, Budiman said.

“Those countries that choose to have this strategy without COVID, they are very vulnerable,” he said.

Kalaniuvalu said some people questioned the decision to leave the ships carrying aid in Tonga, but most felt it was necessary to help overcome the aftermath of the volcano and tsunami, and that the islanders just had to do their best to minimize the impact. of hatching.

“To be honest with you, we were one of the luckiest countries in the world for almost three years, now it’s finally here in Tonga,” he said.

“We Tonga knew that sooner or later coronavirus would come to Tonga because corona is here to stay.”

___ Perry reported from Wellington, New Zealand.

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