An island nation covered in ash now worries about a COVID intrusion
By Damien Cave and Isabella Kwai
A local cleanup and evacuation operation has begun in Tonga after an epic volcanic eruption set off a tsunami, as the island nation’s government, after days of silence, told of an “unprecedented disaster,” and the first aerial photos emerged showing the normally green and verdant isles blanketed with gray dust and ash.
International efforts to deliver aid were being hampered Tuesday by an ash cloud over the country’s main airport, damaged communication lines and one less obvious long-term threat: the risk of foreigners bringing COVID into a country without the virus.
The communications void three days after the eruption on Saturday night had left the extent of the damage unclear. But in the first official update on Tuesday night, the government in Tonga said it had begun assessing the eruption’s toll — confirming that three people had died, including a British national, a 65-year-old woman and a 49-year-old man.
The eruption caused “a volcanic mushroom plume” and tsunami waves of up to 15 meters, or nearly 50 feet, that hit the west coasts of several islands. The internet remained down and communications, which were severed because of eruption, were limited on the islands, according to the statement.
Search-and-rescue teams were sent beginning Sunday morning, the statement said, with nearly all the houses on some hard-hit islands, including Mango, Fonoifua and Nomuka, damaged or destroyed. The government also said that it had set up evacuation centers and was supplying relief items. Volcanic ash had “seriously affected” supplies of clean water.
Australia and New Zealand have mobilized to deliver assistance by air and sea, as they have after cyclones and other natural disasters in the region. Any effort to provide outside help to Tonga, a country of about 100,000 people that shut its borders in 2020 and has yet to reopen them, will have to overcome logistical hurdles while protecting a fragile state of public health.
“The front-of-mind issue has to be: How do we 100% ensure that we don’t bring COVID to this country?” said Jonathan Pryke, director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute, an independent think tank in Sydney. “Whatever good will might be built up by the response would be completely undone if they bring COVID into Tonga.”
The Australian and New Zealand governments say there are safe ways to deliver aid. Still, ever since the undersea volcano erupted, throwing ash 12 miles into the air and sending a tsunami to countries across the Pacific, officials and overseas Tongan families have expressed concern about the risk of international aid workers causing a COVID outbreak.
Their fears are an echo of past trauma. Throughout Polynesia, a region of around 1,000 islands spread across the Southern Pacific, disease delivered by outsiders is a theme that runs through hundreds of years of history.
Regular contact with Europe’s colonizing forces came relatively late to places like Tonga — Capt. James Cook toured the archipelago in 1773, 15 years before the first group of British settled in Australia — but with devastating effect. Over the following century or so, epidemics of measles, dysentery and influenza, carried in by Europeans, devastated island communities all over the South Pacific.
One historical study published in 2016 found that in Hawaii, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Rotuma (a Fiji dependency), the spread of measles alone in the early 19th century killed up to one-quarter of the population across all ages.
And in Tonga, another round of death arrived under even more dubious circumstances with the Spanish flu. In November 1918, according to Phyllis Herda, a historian at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, a steamship called the Talune is believed to have introduced the virus because its captain, John Mawson, hid the risk after leaving Auckland.
When the ship landed in the Tongan capital, Nuku’alofa, with 71 sick passengers and crew members, he reportedly gave the order that everyone on board was “to get dressed and pretend they were not ill,” so the steamer could be unloaded. Almost 2,000 Tongans died in the outbreak that followed — about 8% of the population.
COVID, not surprisingly, has been viewed through the lens of that experience. Tonga has reported just one case, in October, and it requires travelers arriving in the country to quarantine for 21 days. About 60% of the country’s population has received two doses of a COVID vaccine.
Curtis Tu’ihalangingie, the deputy head of mission for the High Commission of Tonga in Australia, said that Tongan officials had been speaking to the Australian and New Zealand governments and donor partners about how to deliver aid in a COVID-safe way.
Officials in both countries have said they plan to be extremely careful when they deliver water, food and construction supplies.
Speaking at a news conference on Sunday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand said the government was mindful of the risks of an outbreak in an otherwise COVID-free environment.
“All of our New Zealand defense staff are fully vaccinated, and the reason for that is to make sure that they are able to deploy safely at a moment’s notice,” she said. “We will be working with officials on the ground in Tonga to make sure that we meet any expectations and protocols that they have established.”
Peeni Henare, the minister of defense, said there were other ways to avoid transmission.
“We’ve done a number of operations in the Pacific over the past two years which have been contactless,” he said, adding that New Zealand would work with its neighbors in the Pacific islands “to make sure that we continue to keep them safe.”
Aid groups in Australia and in the region have said they are deferring to governments on how to best provide assistance.
“We won’t be sending anyone unless requested to do so, and at that point will follow guidance as required,” said Katie Greenwood, who leads the Pacific office of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
She added that the Red Cross had about 70 volunteers in Tonga, with access to enough relief supplies for about 1,200 households, including tarpaulins, shelter-building kits and blankets.
Whether that would be enough was still hard to tell. A New Zealand Defense Force flight to Tonga, scheduled for Tuesday, was delayed because of ash on the runway.
With Tonga’s international internet cable disabled, the satellite phones at the New Zealand and Australian government offices there were some of the only methods for communication at a time when the overseas Tongan community was desperate for information.
Tu’ihalangingie, the Tongan diplomat in Australia, said it would be weeks before phone or internet connections to the outside world were fully restored.
“We still have limited access to Tonga,” he told ABC Radio in Australia. “We still don’t have a direct communication with our government.”