Panic, lockdown and a rush to vaccinate in Tonga as first Covid case recorded

Early on Monday morning, the normally quiet capital of the Pacific country of Tonga, Nuku’alofa city, was packed with cars.

There were long queues outside vaccination centres, as well as banks, Western Union outlets and shops as people rushed to prepare for the tiny nation’s first proper lockdown.

It came four days after the Kingdom of Tonga recorded its first ever Covid case.

The country of roughly 100,000 people 2,000km east of Australia, has made it through nearly two years of the pandemic Covid-free, largely by keeping its borders closed to international arrivals.

But after a repatriation flight from New Zealand last Wednesday brought in the first case – a young Tongan missionary returning from Australia on mission work with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – Tonga is bracing for the worst.

The case has sent people scrambling.

The government confirmed on Monday that the number of those who were fully vaccinated had jumped from around 35% before the first case was confirmed to 62% by Monday, as people who had received their first dose but not returned for their second jab rushed to get vaccinated. Eighty-eight per cent of people had had their first dose.

“There is definitely more urgency now to be vaccinated,” said Dr ʻAmelia Afuhaʻamango Tuʻipulotu, the health minister.

The government announced a seven-day lockdown to cover Tongatapu, the main island, with restrictions that will stop public gatherings, stop work except for essential services and keep people at home.

But many frightened people put themselves into lockdown well ahead of the government’s announcement.

“My husband and I decided to get the two daughters [aged 14 and 15] vaccinated ASAP rather than wait for their scheduled school one. We also made a decision to go into voluntary lockdown immediately,” said Ofa Gutteinbeil Likiliki, who works as the director of the Women and Children Crisis Centre (WCCC) in Nuku’alofa.

“I thought about my son who has asthma and wanted to get him out of school ASAP and my daughters who were at school. Only one had been vaccinated at that time, I wanted to get them out of school.

“I was also shocked that government took some time to announce what was happening, especially after so much had been leaked on social media… [and] that they didn’t make a decision to lockdown immediately after, especially after what we have seen happen in other counties such as Fiji and New Zealand, who are closer to home.”

“I decided that the lockdown announced by government can come later, I’m locking down my family on Friday and I would urge people to lockdown at home, wear your masks and be safe,” said Ramanlal Vallabh, who is the president of the Media Association of Tonga.

“I was worried because we have the first case of Covid-19 in Tonga and after having seen and witnessed what it has done in places like Fiji, New Zealand, Australia and the United States of America.”

Meanwhile, more than 200 people who were onboard the flight with the infected passenger, as well as all the airport staff who were working when the plane came in, and health staff, are in government-managed quarantine.

“When we found out we acted straight away and carried out the work we needed to do. The positive case was isolated and others have been monitored closely,” said Tuʻipulotu, the health minister.

“I just spoke with our doctor, sister in charge and our first Covid-19 case. They are courageous, caring, humble and respectful. They are doing their outmost best for our first case and all passengers,” Tuʻipulotu said.

“I also spoke to our first case and shared my love and compassion to him and his family.”

Announcing the case on Friday, Prime Minister Hon Dr Rev Pohiva Tuioneto’a said: “We ask that you do not panic nor be afraid but that you stand together with us to carry out the duties given us. We pledge to do our best to continuously share correct and reliable information regarding the response.”

The prime minister also asked people not to disseminate wrong information “that is untrue and misleading, as this will affect the trust and support needed for this important work”.

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