Australia and New Zealand have started to dispatch aid to Tonga, amid fears that relief workers could bring a “tsunami of Covid” cases to the Pacific Island nation that has so far recorded just one case of the virus.
New Zealand has dispatched two naval vessels with relief supplies onboard. Defence minister Peeni Henare said they were expected to arrive in four days, though could arrive as soon as Friday if the weather holds.
“Obviously [their number one task] will be to look towards how they can supply water. That’s been their number one priority,” he said.
A New Zealand government update on Wednesday afternoon confirmed that no further deaths had been reported since the Tongan government’s announcement of three confirmed deaths – one Tongan woman, one Tongan man, and one British woman – on Tuesday night.
Sophie Ford, international response coordinator for the Australian Red Cross, said the organisation was among a coalition of aid groups sending critical supplies for the relief effort, with a ship expected to leave from Australia on Wednesday.
The HMAS Adelaide left Sydney for Brisbane on Tuesday and was due to depart for Tonga on Wednesday. Ford said the supplies include material to help provide temporary shelter and clean drinking water which may have been contaminated by the ash cloud.
Tonga Red Cross is leading the local response and has prepared supplies stockpiled to support 1,200 households, but Ford said these will need to be replenished in the coming days and weeks to sustain the effort.
However, Ford said aid groups were aware of Covid-19 restrictions that require people coming into the country to isolate for up to three weeks, and goods to be quarantined for days.
“We’re really mindful that our response doesn’t bring any more problems,” Ford said.
A senior Tongan diplomat in Canberra, Curtis Tuihalangingie, told the ABC that there were concerns of “a tsunami of Covid hitting Tonga” as humanitarian relief came to the country.
Tonga has only one recorded case of Covid-19 throughout the pandemic and has maintained a strict quarantine control regime out of caution.
Ford said Red Cross Australia has technical teams that will work remotely to support the local Tongan Red Cross response on the ground.
“Many of those people have done deployments before so they have relationships with the existing teams on the ground,” Ford said. “Our job as internationals, I believe, is to back up those local responses: make sure we listen to what the people of Tonga say they need, and then give them it.”
Australian prime minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday afternoon he had not yet managed to speak to Tonga’s prime minister to receive a formal request for assistance, saying a telecommunications breakdown and ash clouds have made for a “very difficult environment to be operating in”.
“Any time a Pacific nation has called on us for support, we have always said ‘yes’, and so, you know, I’ll be talking to the prime minister, I hope, later today, communications allowing, and we will run through whatever else they might need,” Morrison said.
Though there were initial fears the eruption and resulting tsunami may have damaged Tonga’s main airport, these proved unfounded with teams of volunteers working to clear the runway.
An update from the New Zealand government on said this work was expected to finish on Wednesday, with power having been restored, clean-up efforts under way and damage assessments taking place.
Henare said a Hercules is on standby ready for when the runway at Tonga’s main airport is cleared of ash and declared safe.
An international mobile phone network provider has set up a temporary system on Tongatapu, Tonga’s main island, using the University of South Pacific’s satellite dish.
It is expected the undersea cable will take four weeks to be repaired, leaving the countries telecommunications system operating at 10% of it usual capacity.
A statement released late on Tuesday night from the office of prime minister Siaosi Sovaleni confirmed the deaths of the three people and the destruction of every home on Mango Island, home to 50 people. Only two houses remained on the neighbouring island of Fonoifua.
It described the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai undersea volcano, 40 miles (65km) north of Tonga’s capital, as an “unprecedented disaster” that resulted in 15m waves.