Community transmission and lockdown deals another blow to Tonga, as it deals with the aftermath of a catastrophic volcanic eruption.
Disaster-hit Tonga will go into lockdown on Wednesday, according to the government, after the country detected its first two community transmissions of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.
Tonga Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni told an emergency press conference that the lockdown would start at 05:00 GMT, just days after the Pacific island nation received aid from an Australian ship where cases of COVID-19 had been reported on board.
The two cases were among 50 people, who were tested for the virus after handling the aid shipment at the port.
“The most important issue at the moment is for us to slow down [the spread of the virus] and stop those who have been affected. That is the reason for our national lockdown,” Sovaleni was quoted as saying by Matangitonga news website.
Health Minister Saia Piukala told reporters in the same press conference that the two men, who worked at the Queen Salote Wharf in Nuku’alofa, showed no symptoms of the virus.
He said that health officials had contacted them in their homes, and that they have been “separated” from their families, who were also ordered to self-isolate at home.
Tonga has recorded only one positive COVID case – in a quarantined traveller – since the pandemic began two years ago.
The new cases are an additional blow as Tonga deals with the aftermath of last month’s catastrophic volcanic eruption of the Hunga Tonga – Hunga Ha’apai, which blanketed the island nation in ash and generated a tsunami.
The urgent need for humanitarian assistance – particularly drinking water – raised concerns about the coronavirus, which increased after it emerged that some of the crew onboard the HMAS Adelaide were diagnosed with the virus.
The ship went ahead with the delivery and stressed there would be no physical interaction between those on board the ship and the port workers receiving the shipment.
🇹🇴 Tonga will enter a nationwide lockdown at 6:00pm tomorrow, after two cases of Covid-19 were detected in the community. Only essential services will operate. PM Siaosi Sovaleni will review lockdown in 2 days, encouraging prayer. Health Minister says cases are likely Omicron.
— Mariner Fagaiava-Muller (@marinerfagaiava) February 1, 2022
According to reports, crew members onboard aid flights from Japan and Australia also reported cases, but it is unclear if they had any direct contact with people on the ground when they arrived in Tonga.
It is also unclear if the airport workers were also tested.
The prime minister said that the COVID situation in the country would be reassessed “after every 48 hours”, and the government would decide whether to end or extend the lockdown depending on the outcome,
The country of 105,000 people has maintained border restrictions since March 2020, allowing it to contain the virus, while also implementing a nationwide vaccination programme.
According to the health ministry, 83 percent of the eligible population — equivalent to about 77,000 people over the age of 12 — have been fully vaccinated, while 96 percent have received at least their first dose.
Tonga and several other small Pacific nations, such as Palau and Fiji, were among the last places on the planet to have avoided any virus outbreaks. The three island nations have also managed to ramp up their vaccination programmes in the last two years.
On Tuesday, the International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent Societies warned that a record surge in COVID-19 cases was threatening to overwhelm hospitals and fragile health systems in some other Pacific island nations, including the Solomon Islands, where vaccination is still low.