Formerly COVID-Free Nation Locked Down After Aid Delivery

Authorities in Tonga say port workers tested positive
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 28, 2022 1:25 PM CST
Updated Feb 2, 2022 12:51 PM CST
Aid Ship's Tonga Challenge: No Contact
In this photo provided by the Australian Defence Force, crew on board HMAS Adelaide watch as the ship arrives in Nuku'alofa, Tonga, Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022, carrying disaster relief and humanitarian aid supplies.   (CPL Robert Whitmore/Australian Defence Force via AP)

Update: Tonga has entered its first lockdown of the pandemic, days after relief ships delivered aid to the disaster-hit Pacific island nation. Authorities say two workers who helped unload aid shipments tested positive for COVID, as did three of their family members, the New York Times reports. Tonga, which was hit by a volcanic eruption and tsunami last month, had long been COVID-free, and these are the first cases of community transmission it has recorded. Schools have been closed and travel between the country's 169 islands has been halted. Dozens of Australian sailors were infected in an outbreak on a relief ship, but authorities say the delivery was contactless and they don't believe the ship is linked to workers' infections, the BBC reports. Our story from Jan. 28 follows:

British and Australian navy ships arrived in Tonga this week and attempted to deliver aid without making contact with anybody ashore to avoid spreading the coronavirus in a nation that has never had an outbreak. The danger of spreading the disease was underscored when nearly two dozen sailors aboard the Australian ship HMAS Adelaide were reported infected on Tuesday, raising fears they could bring the coronavirus to the small Pacific archipelago devastated by an undersea volcanic eruption and a tsunami on Jan. 15, the AP reports. Tongan authorities have been wary that accepting international aid could usher in a bigger disaster than the huge eruption. The tsunami killed three people.

Since the pandemic began, Tonga has reported just a single case of COVID-19. It’s one of the few countries in the world currently completely virus free. About 61% of Tongans are fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data. Britain said its ship the HMS Spey arrived with 7,900 gallons of bottled water, medical supplies for more than 300 first aid kits, and basic sanitation products. It said none of its sailors disembarked the ship, and instead moved the supplies ashore by crane. The Australian government said its ship had completed the 2,050-mile voyage from Brisbane and would deliver supplies without contact with the local population to avoid infections.

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"The ship is undertaking an entirely contactless delivery of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief supplies," the Australian statement said. Under pandemic measures, Tonga typically requires visitors to quarantine for three weeks on arrival and that complicates the international disaster response. All international aid is to be delivered without local contact. With restoration of the drinking water supply a major priority, the ship brings a desalination plant. The ship is the second aid mission from Australia in which at least one crew member tested positive. A C-17 Globemaster military transport plane was earlier turned around midflight after a person aboard was diagnosed with the coronavirus. (This Tongan man was called a "real life Aquaman" after his 27-hour ordeal.)

(Read more Tonga stories.)

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