Medical Technology

COVID-19 Concerns Force UN to Prepare Tsunami-Hit Tonga Relief Aid at a distance

(Reuters) (Reuters) – The United Nations is preparing for relief operations with a distance in Tonga to avoid a COVID-19 outbreak in the Pacific island nation, which is reeling under the impact of the tsunami and a volcanic eruption an official said on Wednesday.

The government said in its official statement following Saturday’s catastrophic eruption that all homes on one of Tonga’s tiny outer islands were destroyed and that three people had been confirmed dead.

Communications were severely hampered due to the severed of undersea cable. Information on the extent of the destruction is mostly derived from reconnaissance aircraft.

Fiji-based United Nations co-ordinator Jonathan Veitch said in a media briefing that the agency will carry out most operations remotely, and may not send personnel to the island.

“We believe we will be able to send flights using supplies. We’re not certain that we can send flights with personnel. The reason behind this is because Tonga has a very strict COVID-free policy,” Veitch said.

Tonga is one of the few countries COVID-19-free and an outbreak there would disastrous, he stated. Veitch said that 90% of the population in Tonga is covered by vaccinations including adults and younger children over 12 years of age.

“They’ve been very cautious about opening their borders, just like many Pacific islands, and that’s due to the history of outbreaks of diseases in the Pacific which has wiped out societies here.”

Veitch stated that the U.N. has 23 personnel on the ground as well as other international NGOs are able to aid in relief efforts.

He added that the World Health Organization would start a discussion with the government “in a cautious way, but we won’t be doing anything to undermine the safety of their protocols and the safety of their population in the context of COVID.”


The Tongan government has begun to evacuate residents who are stranded in outlying areas. The prime minister’s office stated late on Tuesday that the supply of water has been severely affected by volcanic ash and this is a major concern.

Ships carrying supplies and aid equipment, like water and other supplies, have left ports in Australia and New Zealand. However, it could take up to five days to reach Tonga.

The government has set it as a top priority to remove the runway of ash. The archipelago’s primary Fua’amotu International Airport was not damaged but the ash had to be removed manually.

“We believed that it would be operational by yesterday, but it hasn’t been completely cleared because more ash has been falling,” Veitch said.

According to the office of the Prime Minister, tsunami waves of up to 15 meters smashed into the Ha’apia Island cluster, in which Mango is located, and the west coast of Tongatapu island. Residents were moved to evacuation centres since 56 homes were damaged or destroyed on that coast.

Atata and Mango are between about 50 km and 70 km from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano, which sent tsunami waves across the Pacific Ocean when it erupted with a blast heard 2,300 km (1,430 miles) away in New Zealand.

Tonga is being offered financial aid by Australia and New Zealand immediately.

The U.S. Agency for International Development approved $100,000 in immediate assistance to assist people affected by volcanic eruptions and tsunami waves.

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