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In Tonga, after the volcanic eruption, the fear of Covid-19
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In Tonga, after the volcanic eruption, the fear of Covid-19
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After the volcanic eruption and the tsunami that hit the Tonga Islands on January 15, international aid is being organised. This support worries the authorities of the archipelago who fear that a wave of Covid-19 will arrive with foreigners when the territory has until then been spared.

Five days after the devastating volcanic eruption and tsunami in the Tonga Islands, international aid is being organised. On Wednesday January 19, the country’s main airstrip, which had been covered in a pile of ash, was cleared. The first planes bringing basic necessities are thus expected on Thursday. But faced with the imminent arrival of this foreign aid, a new fear is emerging among the authorities: to see the Covid-19 spreading in the island state.

Until then, the approximately 100,000 inhabitants of Tonga’s 170 islands seemed to live in a bubble, sheltered from Covid-19. Since the start of the pandemic, only one contamination has been identified. A feat due to the geographical isolation of the archipelago, but also to a “Zero Covid” strategy: each person arriving in the country must be fully vaccinated and submit to a strict 21-day quarantine. The government can also boast of seeing 60% of its population fully vaccinated, according to figures from the World Health Organization (WHO).

For now, the authorities refuse to go back on this policy. Asked about the Australian channel ABC, Curtis Tuihalangingie, diplomat at the Tonga embassy in Canberra, assured that “keeping Covid-19 out of the country remains a priority in order to protect the population from a ‘Covid tsunami'”, adding that any help – material or human – sent to the archipelago should undergo quarantine.

Yet the needs are pressing. On Tuesday, the government described the disaster as “unprecedented”, saying waves up to 15 meters high had destroyed all homes on some islands. Water supplies have also been contaminated by volcanic ash, he warned. “We have heard that stores are now running out of food,” said Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF regional coordinator, at a press conference the same day.

“Bringing the Covid-19 would have disastrous consequences”

“The arrival of Covid-19 in the archipelago would have disastrous consequences for the population”, explains to France 24 Sarah Mohamed-Gaillard, specialist in the history of Oceania at the National Institute of Oriental Languages ​​and Civilizations. (Inalco). “If humanitarian aid brought the virus, it would add a great difficulty to the damage of the eruption”, she assures.

For good reason, “the population of Tonga is particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. It has many children – whose parents have sometimes left to work abroad – and elderly people. It is also a territory affected by the obesity and diabetes”, continues the specialist. “Not to mention that, in these territories, the hospital structure is often reduced and located on the most inhabited island. It can therefore be difficult to access for many inhabitants.”

Beyond the health crisis, the Tongan government’s concern is explained by the country’s history. “This fear also echoes old traumas”, analyzes Sarah Mohamed-Gaillard. “From the end of the 18th century, diseases such as measles, mumps or even the flu were brought by foreigners throughout the Pacific, sometimes decimating entire communities”, she recalls.

According to a study published in 2016, and relayed by the New York Times, a measles epidemic would have been responsible for the death of a quarter of the total population of Hawaii, the islands of Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Rotuma at the beginning of the 19th century. century.

In Tonga specifically, in November 1918, many people died of the Spanish flu after sailors on a boat from New Zealand brought it, says the American media.

Help without direct contact

Faced with the situation, NGOs, associations and governments are working together to reassure Tonga and provide assistance despite the closure of the borders. In the front line: Australia and New Zealand, where there is a large community from Tonga. “We will work with the authorities on the ground to ensure that we respect their expectations and their health restrictions,” assured New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Sunday.

“All humanitarian efforts deployed to help this small kingdom will respect the country’s strict health protocols to keep it away from the pandemic,” added the UN.

Since that announcement, Tonga has given the green light to start delivering aid. Along with planes carrying essentials, which are expected from Thursday, the Australian fleet’s HMAS Adelaide is on its way to Tonga with relief supplies on board. It should arrive at its destination in five days, after 2,380 km at sea in the Pacific Ocean.

Two New Zealand ships have also left for the archipelago and are expected to reach it in about three days. In particular, they transport drinking water as well as a desalination unit capable of supplying 70,000 liters per day.

Meanwhile, discussions continue to determine the protocol to be followed to protect the archipelago as much as possible. According to the Washington Post, the advanced scenario is that of deliveries without direct contact. “The Covid-19 pandemic has at least had one advantage: in the past two years we have already made a large number of contactless deliveries,” welcomed New Zealand Defense Minister Peeni Henare.

For their part, the few international NGOs already present on the ground are providing aid to the victims. Among them, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has 70 volunteers in Tonga. They managed to distribute supplies including tarpaulins and water to 1,200 families. “We will not send additional teams, unless we have an explicit request”, explains however Katie Greenwood, responsible for the Red Cross for the Pacific region, in video posted on social media.

In Tonga, after the volcanic eruption, the fear of Covid-19
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