Could aid efforts cause outbreak in 'Covid-free' Tonga?

ITV News Correspondent Dan Rivers explains why reaching the Pacific nation of Tonga- devastated by an unprecedented volcanic eruption on Saturday- has been so difficult so far

Humanitarian efforts in Tonga are set to accelerate as the island begins to recover from a volcanic eruption that cut off its communications.

And after the government issued its first statement on Tuesday following the “unprecedented disaster”, international bodies could soon start to take action.

The impact, though its extent is not clear, has been widespread – as pictures taken from overhead illustrate.

Water supplies have been “seriously affected” and three have been confirmed dead so far, with “a number” of others injured.

Inevitably complicating operations, however, is Covid-19.

Tonga has remained almost completely free of the virus ever since the outbreak was first reported in China and there are fears this could be in jeopardy, as help comes in from abroad.

How many cases and deaths has Tonga reported?

Just one case of Covid-19 has ever been reported on the island, which has a population of around 105,000 and is more than 2,000 kilometres north-east of New Zealand and around 800 kilometres from nearest neighbour, Fiji.

This case was reported on October 25 last year and there have been no deaths linked to the virus.

A huge cloud of ash rose above the Pacific island nation

The vaccination rollout continues, having started in April last year with the AstraZeneca vaccine, with roughly 60% of the population receiving two doses.

This does mean that around 40% are either less protected or unprotected against the virus.

What are the restrictions in Tonga?

One reason for the island’s extremely low number of infections is its decision to call a State of Emergency on March 20, 2020, as the pandemic began to grow worldwide.

Travel has been tightly-monitored ever since then, with the solitary Covid case coming from a traveller from New Zealand.

Even internally, gatherings have been restricted to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors (except for religious and educations institutions).

What will Tonga need help with?

The full extent of the disaster is not yet known, but the government has already raised issues with its water supply.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who has pledged the country will help Tonga, has said: “A clear indication that has come from Tonga is the need for water.

A view of Tonga from above. Credit: New Zealand Defence Force

“The ash cloud has, as you can imagine, caused contamination. That's on top of already a challenging environment in terms of water supply. And so that's what the Defense Force is very focused on.”

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is helping to organise relief efforts and has particular concerns over its water and crop supplies.

Antony Balmain, the organisation’s Asia Pacific spokesperson, told ITV News: “We have grave concerns that the tsunami and ashfall have damaged safe water supplies and food crops for thousands of people across Tonga.

“Trained Red Cross teams are providing access to safe water as many drinking water sources have been polluted by debris, mud and ash from the volcanic eruption and salt water from the tsunami.

“Tonga is still cut off from the world and blanketed in thick grey ash.

“We are very worried for people living on some of the smaller islands where villages have been severely damaged by powerful tsunami."

The landscape in Tonga has been blackened by the eruption. Credit: Maxar Technologies

While the scale of casualties is still far from clear, the government’s statement that a “number” are injured suggests there could be many people in need of treatment.

Tonga’s health system may need support from aid workers on the ground, while thick ash on an airport runway has also delayed deliveries.

So, what can be done to minimise Covid’s spread?

Reports suggest the government will waive the 21-day quarantine for aid workers.

Additionally, Ms Ardern said New Zealand's military staff were all fully vaccinated and willing to follow any protocols established by Tonga.

New Zealand is also sending two navy ships and committed an initial one million New Zealand dollars (£500,000) towards recovery efforts.

A Royal Australian Navy ship has gone to Brisbane, in the east of the country, to prepare for humanitarian support if requested, while China said on Tuesday it is preparing to send drinking water, food, personal protective equipment and other supplies as soon as flights resume.

Australia has sent a ship to Brisbane in readiness. Credit: AP

The UN World Food Program, meanwhile, is exploring how to bring in relief supplies and more staff and has received a request to restore communication lines.

The IFRC said it is conscious of the island’s success in halting the spread of the virus.

“It is always important to keep people safe from disease after disasters,” Mr Balmain said.

“Red Cross has a range of practices in place to help protect people from Covid-19, including providing masks, making sure that physical distance is maintained in relief operations, and this will be more important than ever in the coming weeks.

“We also need to work with authorities on quarantine arrangements for the delivery of relief supplies in the coming days and any specialist aid workers who may be requested to support in the country.”