Almost two dozen crew members on an Australian military ship delivering much-needed aid to Tonga have tested positive for coronavirus, officials have said.
Tongan authorities had been wary of accepting international aid – due to the risk of COVID-19 – after the South Pacific island nation was hit by a tsunami following an undersea volcanic eruption almost two weeks ago.
Since the pandemic began, it has recorded just a single case of COVID-19 and avoided any outbreaks – and it is one of the few countries in the world that is currently completely virus free.
‘They need aid desperately – but don’t want the risk of COVID’
Australia’s defence minister Peter Dutton said he was working with the Tongan authorities to keep HMAS Adelaide – which left Brisbane last week – at sea to make sure there is no threat to Tonga’s 105,000 residents, after 23 crew members tested positive for the virus.
“They need the aid desperately, but they don’t want the risk of COVID,” Mr Dutton told Sky News.
“We will work through all of that as quickly as we can.”
Data suggests about 61% of Tongans are fully vaccinated.
It is the second aid shipment that has been sent to the archipelago after the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haʻapai underwater volcano erupted on 13 and 15 January.
A C-17 Globemaster military transport plane was turned around mid-flight after somebody was diagnosed with the virus.
The volcanic blast was so powerful it severed an undersea communication cable and triggered a tsunami – and was heard from as far away as Fiji, New Zealand and Australia.
Communications being restored
A cable company official has said internet services could be restored within two weeks, although the connection to the smaller islands may take longer to repair.
Some limited international call services have been restored.
Samieula Fonua, who chairs the board at Tonga Cable Ltd, the state-owned company which owns the fibre-optic cable, said a repair ship had left from Papua New Guinea and was due to stop over in Samoa by Monday to pick up supplies.
It should arrive in Tonga by 1 February, with repairs to the cable expected to happen by 8 February, restoring internet to 80% of Tonga’s customers.
It is estimated that roughly 80% of Tonga’s population has been affected by the eruption, with at least three people killed, including one Briton.