SYDNEY, Australia — A cleanup and evacuation operation has begun in Tonga, where the island nation’s government, after days of silence, said Tuesday night that an epic volcanic eruption and the tsunami and ash clouds that followed were an “unprecedented disaster.”
International efforts to deliver aid have been complicated not just by the ash and by damaged communication lines, but also by concerns that an island nation that has managed to ward off the coronavirus may be overcome should it allow in aid workers who might be carrying it.
At a news conference Tuesday, Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF’S resident coordinator for the Pacific Islands, said relief efforts would be conducted to get badly needed supplies into Tonga without direct contact.
“We won’t be doing anything to threaten the safety of the population,” he said, speaking to reporters remotely from Fiji.
But even moving in supplies will take some time.
Both Australia and New Zealand have supply planes loaded and ready to go — but the debris produced by the blast Saturday has rendered the airport runways in Tonga unusable.
“The ash has proven more difficult to clear than what was expected,” Veitch said. “We thought that it would be operational yesterday.”
Equipment that uses water to clear the runways more quickly is making its way to Tonga by ship, but is still six to eight days away.
Those ships also carry food and water, which is desperately needed in parts of the archipelago.
“We have heard that shops are running out of food,” Veitch said.
For three days after the eruption of the volcano, Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, about 40 miles off Tonga, little was heard from the nation of about 100,000. The eruption caused “a volcanic mushroom plume” and tsunami waves of up to 15 meters that hit the west coasts of several islands. The internet remained down, and communications, which were severed because of the eruption, were limited on the islands.
The first official update came Tuesday night, when the government there said it had begun assessing the eruption’s toll and confirmed that three people had died, including a British national, a 65-year-old woman and a 49-year-old man.
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, it said, has “seriously affected” supplies of clean water.
As nations geared up to help, the big question was how to do so safely.
“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, the director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute, an independent think tank in Sydney. “Whatever goodwill might be built up by the response would be completely undone if they bring COVID into Tonga.”
The Tongans’ 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 impact. 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-19, 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-19 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-19-safe way.
“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,” New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said Sunday.
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.
Some two dozen U.N. aid workers were already stationed in Tonga when the volcano erupted, and Veitch said they were at work, including providing medical care.
But 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 said 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.
Tu’ihalangingie 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.”