Tonga emerges from lockdown as it battles Covid outbreak

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First, a volcanic eruption blanketed the main island of Tonga in thick layers of ash that contaminated water sources. Then came a tsunami, which destroyed homes, left piles of debris and uprooted vegetation, completely denuding parts of the country’s small islands.

Now the South Pacific archipelago nation is emerging from lockdown amid its first coronavirus outbreak, compounding the disasters that unfolded over the past month.

“It happened so fast, and the general atmosphere of people here is one of panic,” Seko Vaipulu, a resident of Malapo, a small village on the main island of Tongatapu, said shortly after the lockdown was announced. on February 2, saying he “felt like a prisoner.

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Like many other countries far from the Pacific Ocean – a strategically important region where the United States and China vie for influence – Tonga has largely kept the virus off its shores for much of the Covid pandemic. -19, thanks to border restrictions and quarantine requirements. But the volcanic eruption and resulting tsunami on January 15 raised fears that the arrival of international disaster aid could bring the virus with it.

“We want one disaster, not two disasters at the same time,” said Drew Havea, vice president of the Tonga Red Cross Society.

Lockdown restrictions eased from Monday, with retail businesses set to reopen as officials consider next steps. A curfew remains in place from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. and face-to-face classes remain suspended.

This month’s sudden lockdown came as no surprise to some Tongans, who watched with concern the rise in cases in neighboring island nations.

Kiribati, Samoa and the Solomon Islands have all been in lockdown recently after the virus crossed their borders. The Cook Islands reported its first case of the virus on February 13, a month after reopening its border to quarantine-free travel from New Zealand.

The outbreak in Tonga, caused by the more transmissible omicron variant, grew rapidly. The country reported 24 new cases on Friday, bringing its total for the pandemic to 234.

Although the numbers are low by international standards, health experts and aid groups say such outbreaks could be ‘devastating’ for countries made more vulnerable by fragile health systems and high rates of illness. non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease.

Relief supplies from Japan arrive at Fuaʻamotu International Airport on Tongatapu Island, Tonga on January 22.Japan’s Ministry of Defense / via Reuters

“The biggest hospital here won’t be able to handle it well” when Covid cases spike, said Marvin Go, a resident of Tonga’s capital, Nukuʻalofa, before the lockdown. “That’s one of the issues that worries most people here.”

Two-thirds of Tonga’s population are fully immunized, according to the Ministry of Health.

Prior to this year, the small island nation of around 105,000 people had reported just one case of the virus. The current outbreak began when two port workers tested positive, although it was unclear whether the infections were linked to aid deliveries.

Stringent Covid protocols have been implemented on ‘contactless’ aid shipments arriving in recent weeks from the US, UK, Australia, China and Japan. Incoming supplies are isolated at the Tongatapu wharf for 72 hours before being distributed to the community.

After the lockdown was announced, Tongan Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni said aid distribution would continue, although frontline workers “should be more careful”.

Locals fear that Tonga, which relies heavily on imported supplies, will face food and drinking water shortages in the coming months.

“Nowadays, goods from overseas – especially foodstuffs – take a long time to arrive in Tonga, and prices will definitely increase,” Go said.

The sudden lockdown also hampered tsunami cleanup efforts, involving most of Tonga’s frontline workers, said Dr Paula Vivili, deputy director general for science and capacity at the Pacific Community, a group of international Development.

“An outbreak now will not only be devastating from a Covid response perspective, it will also have a significant impact on their ability to respond effectively to recovery efforts,” he said in an emailed statement. .

The World Bank estimated this month that the volcanic eruption, tsunami and ashfall caused $90 million in direct damage, equivalent to around 18.5% of Tonga’s gross domestic product. Sovaleni said on Friday repair work was nearing completion on Tonga’s only undersea fiber optic cable after it was severed during the volcanic eruption, severely disrupting local and international communications.

Aid to Tonga and other Pacific nations has become a matter of competition between the United States and China, which has growing economic influence in the region. Tonga, which has been borrowing from China for more than a decade, is one of its biggest debtors in the Pacific.

Washington and Beijing have both donated Covid vaccines to countries like Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. They also appear to be prioritizing general development assistance and outreach to nations in a part of the world that Secretary of State Antony Blinken says will shape much of what happens in this century.

“No region on Earth will affect American lives and livelihoods more than the Indo-Pacific,” he said Feb. 12, referring to the area from the U.S. Pacific Coast to the Indian Ocean. He was speaking of Fiji, where he was the first secretary of state to visit in nearly 40 years, as part of a Pacific tour meant to underscore Washington’s renewed commitment to the region.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Nadi, Fiji, on February 12.Kevin Lamarque/Pool via Getty Images

Blinken also said the United States planned to reestablish an embassy in the Solomon Islands, where deadly protests late last year were partly prompted by concerns about Chinese influence. The United States has not had an embassy there since 1993.

The Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy, released on February 11, includes strengthening alliances and partnerships, addressing climate change and strengthening security.

“We see our long-term future in the Indo-Pacific,” Blinken said. “It’s as simple and basic as that.”


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