Tonga fights to keep Covid away: "We want one catastrophe, not two"

After suffering from last month's tsunami and volcanic eruption, the Pacific nation is now free from lockdown after its first pandemic outbreak.

Tonga fights to keep Covid away: "We want one catastrophe, not two"

First, a volcano covered Tonga's main Island in thick layers of ash which contaminated the water sources. Next came the tsunami which decimated homes and left piles of debris, ripped out vegetation, and stripped parts of smaller islands of the country completely.

The South Pacific archipelago country is now that it has emerged from lockdown amid a coronavirus epidemic, adding to the catastrophes of last month.


 

"It happened so quickly, and the general atmosphere among the people here is panic," Seko Valuu, a Malapo resident, stated shortly after Feb. 2's lockdown announcement that he felt "like a prisoner."
Tonga, like many other countries in the Pacific Ocean where the U.S. and
China vie for influence, had managed to keep the virus from reaching its shores during the Covid-19 Pandemic thanks to quarantine and border restrictions. The Jan. 15 tsunami and volcanic eruption raised concerns that international disaster assistance could spread the virus.

Drew Havea, vice-president of the Tonga Red Cross Society, stated that "We want one catastrophe, not two at once."

Retail businesses are now able to reopen while officials review next steps. Lockdown restrictions were lifted starting Monday. The curfew is still in effect from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. and classes in-person are suspended.

Some Tongans were not surprised by the sudden lockdown in August. They have been closely watching the rise of cases in neighbouring islands nations with concern.

After the virus infected their borders, Kiribati and Samoa were all placed under lockdown. February 13th was the date that Cook Islands reported their first case of virus. This occurred a month after New Zealand reopened its borders to allow for quarantine-free travel.

Tonga's outbreak, which was triggered by the more transmissible variant of omicron, has been rapidly growing. On Friday, 24 additional cases were reported by the nation, making it 234.

Although these numbers are not large by international standards, experts and aid groups warn that such outbreaks could prove devastating to countries with fragile health systems and high rates non-communicable diseases such as heart disease.

Marvin Go, a Tonga resident, stated that "the biggest hospital here won’t be able to deal with it well" as Covid cases rise. This was before the lockdown. "This is a problem that most people are concerned about."

According to the Ministry of Health, two-thirds of Tongans are fully vaccinated.

The tiny island nation of 105,000 had only reported one virus case before this year. Two port workers were among the first to be infected by the current outbreak. However, it is not clear if they were receiving aid.

On "no contact" aid that has arrived in recent weeks from the U.S.A, Australia, China, Japan, Australia, China, and Australia, strict Covid protocols were implemented. After 72 hours, supplies arriving from overseas are kept at Tongatapu’s wharf before being distributed to the community.

Tongan Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni announced that aid distribution would continue despite the fact that front-line workers will need to be "more careful" after the lockdown announcement.

Residents are concerned that Tonga, which heavily depends on imported supplies for its food and water, may face shortages in the months ahead.

Go stated that goods from overseas, especially food, take a long time to get to Tonga and that prices will go up.

According to Dr. Paula Vivili (the deputy director-general for science and capability at Pacific Community, an international development organization), the sudden lockdown has also hindered efforts to clean-up after the tsunami.

In an email statement, he stated that "an outbreak now will not just be devastating from the Covid response perspective but it will also significantly affect their ability to respond effectively towards the recovery efforts."

According to the World Bank, the damage caused by the tsunami, volcanic eruption and ashfall was $90,000,000 in direct damage. This is equivalent to 18.5 percent of Tonga’s gross domestic product. Sovaleni announced Friday that repairs were almost complete on Tonga’s only undersea fibre-optic cable, which was cut during the volcanic eruption. This caused severe disruption to international communications.

Aid To Tonga has become a matter for competition between the U.S.and China, which have growing economic influence within the region. Tonga is the largest Pacific debtor, having taken loans from China for over a decade.

Both Washington and Beijing donated Covid vaccines for countries like Papua New Guinea or the Solomon Islands. They appear to prioritize general development aid and outreach to countries in a region Secretary of State Antony Blinken claims will influence much of what happens in the 21st century.

He said February 12 that "No region on Earth will impact the lives and livelihoods Americans more than Indo-Pacific", referring to the area stretching from the U.S. Pacific coast to the Indian Ocean. As part of a Pacific tour, he spoke from Fiji, which he visited for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Blinken said that the U.S. plans to re-establish a diplomatic mission in the Solomon Islands. This was partly due to concerns about Chinese influence. Since 1993, the U.S. hasn't had an embassy in that area.

The Indo-Pacific strategy of the Biden administration, which was released Feb. 11, contains strengthening alliances, partnerships, combating climate change, and bolstering security.

Blinken stated, "We see our long-term success in the Indo-Pacific." It's simple and straightforward.

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