After Volcano Eruption, Tonga Needs to Bring In Aid but Keep Out Covid-19

WELLINGTON, New Zealand—In the aftermath of a volcanic eruption and tsunami that ravaged parts of Tonga, governments and humanitarian agencies are wrestling with how to get aid safely into one of the last Covid-free places on Earth.

Tonga, a Pacific nation comprising around 170 islands, was showered with toxic ash from Saturday’s eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano that threatens to poison water sources. Tsunami waves at least a meter high smashed into buildings and swept away cars. The undersea cable that connects the archipelago with the rest of the world via Fiji appears to be badly damaged.

But efforts to mobilize the transport of clean water and other essential supplies have been slow, hampered by restricted communications and ash on airport runways.

Katie Greenwood, Pacific head of delegation for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said Tongan authorities will also want to avoid the aid effort spreading coronavirus among the islands’ roughly 100,000 residents.

“They will be very cautious about having people go into the country given that most of the places people are coming from would have a reasonable number of Covid cases,” she said.

Tonga’s biggest neighbors are Australia and New Zealand, which are both battling Covid-19 outbreaks. After ending 2021 with a total of around 400,000 cases confirmed for the entire pandemic, Australia had recorded more than 1.7 million infections by Jan. 16.

Tonga has kept out Covid-19 through an initial strict lockdown in March 2020 and a closed border since then. The limited number of arrivals are required to quarantine for three weeks. It avoided any cases of Covid-19 until October last year when a passenger who arrived from New Zealand on a repatriation flight tested positive while in quarantine. There have been no cases since.

But the absence of Covid-19 means Tongans haven’t built any immunity to the virus and the nation’s healthcare system is limited, leaving it vulnerable to an outbreak. Tonga has fully vaccinated around 60% of its eligible population against Covid-19, lower than some Pacific neighbors, including Fiji, according to Our World in Data.

Three days after the volcanic eruption and tsunami, which was felt as far away as Japan and the U.S. West Coast, the full extent of the damage remains unclear. Information trickling out from the country has come from satellite-internet and phone connections to embassies and Tonga’s diaspora in New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere.

Satellite images show an undersea volcano erupting near the South Pacific nation of Tonga on Saturday. The country’s meteorological service said a tsunami warning was in effect. Photo: RAMMB/NOAA/NESDIS/Shutterstock

The main island Tongatapu has suffered significant coastline damage, particularly on its western flank. New Zealand’s chief diplomat to Tonga, Peter Lund, said in a satellite-phone interview broadcast on New Zealand TV that a major loss of life had been avoided on the main island, with an unconfirmed death toll of three.

The United Nations Satellite Centre said analysis of images of Nomuka island—part of a group of Tongan islands near the undersea volcano—indicated that 41 of 104 structures visible in a cloud-free area were damaged and all were covered by ash.

New Zealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nanaia Mahuta, on Tuesday said the country’s support to Tonga is being delivered in a “contactless” way.

Two New Zealand navy ships are scheduled to sail for Tonga on Tuesday—a three-day voyage—in case the Tongan government requests more assistance.

One has underwater survey and diving teams that can check on any changes to the seabed in shipping channels and assess the state of wharves. The second ship will carry water and disaster-relief supplies. It can also produce about 70,000 liters of water a day through desalination. A New Zealand air force transport plane is on standby to bring aid once the airport runway in Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa is cleared of ash.

A New Zealand air force plane prepares to leave for Tonga from Auckland.


New Zealand Ministry Of Defense/Zuma Press

“Other deployments are possible in the next few days, subject to Tongan government requests and permissions, and Covid-19 border rules,” Ms. Mahuta said.

Australia has also readied a navy warship, HMAS Adelaide, to take humanitarian and disaster-relief supplies to Tonga, Foreign Minister

Marise Payne


New Zealand has some experience in giving assistance to Pacific islands during the pandemic without becoming a vector for Covid-19. It moved Covid-19 vaccines to remote areas such as Tokelau, Niue and the Cook Islands. The navy’s official publication said actual delivery of the vaccines “was like one of those wary border exchanges you see in movies.”

Photos of the handover of vaccines at Atafu atoll in Tokelau showed masked islanders and a defense forces vaccine specialist standing meters apart on a wharf, a blue box of vaccines between them, while an inflatable boat waited to whisk the specialist—his head encased in a helmet with a large visor—back to the navy vessel.

Sainiana Rokovucago, the Red Cross’ head of programs in the Pacific, said the risk of spreading Covid-19 means it will rely on its Tonga staff of 10 plus 70 local volunteers. They are already responding to the disaster, using Red Cross supplies such as blankets and meals that were already in the country.

In New Zealand, lawmaker Anahila Kanongata’a Suisuiki and other leaders of the Tongan community have formed a committee to coordinate the diaspora’s response to the disaster. The group hopes to send containers of donations once there is a clearer idea of what is needed in Tonga and subject to any Covid-19 restrictions.

“The last thing Tongans want is to have Covid arrive on their shores after the volcanic activity,” she said.

Write to Stephen Wright at [email protected]

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