Tonga Goes Into Lockdown Over 5 Covid Cases

Tonga went into lockdown on Wednesday evening after recording its first community transmission of the coronavirus, weeks after being battered by a powerful volcanic eruption and subsequent tsunami. The eruption shrouded buildings in ash, swamped the island with water, cut off digital communication and prompted an international humanitarian aid effort.

Two workers who were helping to distribute aid shipments at the Tongan wharf tested positive for the virus on Tuesday, prompting Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni to announce a lockdown that night. Three more positive cases were recorded on Wednesday among relatives of the workers, who are asymptomatic and in quarantine, local news media reported.

The outbreak occurred despite efforts by countries and aid groups to deliver relief without direct contact with the island nation, which had managed until now to remain mostly coronavirus free.

The initial two cases were detected in Nuku’alofa, the capital, during routine testing of frontline wharf workers, local news media reported.

Mr. Sovaleni said at a news conference on Tuesday night that the authorities were in the process of identifying from which ship the transmission had spread.

“We are working on it, and we have the record of ships that had been here at a time that could have spread this virus. We are looking at goods that were offloaded, ”he said, according to the local newspaper Matangi Tonga.

Officials in Australia said the cases were not linked to the Australian Navy ship the HMAS Adelaide, which has been stranded at Nuku’alofa since last week because of a power outage. The Australian government said that 23 crew members had tested positive for the coronavirus and were in isolation. The vessel had docked to deliver aid, and its cargo was being offloaded by machines, a United Nations spokesman said.

Greg Bilton, chief of Australia’s Defense Force, said on Wednesday that the ship had unloaded at a different wharf from the one where the two port employees worked, and that it had done so in a coronavirus-safe way.

“I do not think there’s any connection; there’s no evidence of that, ”he told Sky News.

Mr. Bilton added that the ship would return to Australia with coronavirus samples so that scientists could help the Tongan authorities identify the virus strain and trace the outbreak.

Tonga went into lockdown from 6 pm on Wednesday, with schools shut, mass gatherings forbidden and travel banned among the country’s 169 islands. Officials said they hoped that the lockdown, which will be reviewed every two days, would stop transmission between the capital and the other islands.

The lockdown is another blow to a nation that is still recovering from the devastating effects of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcanic eruption on Jan. 15, which unleashed tsunami waves of up to 50 feet that hit several islands. The eruption damaged the country’s single fiber optic cable. Many residents are still without internet, as repairs are expected to take weeks.

Tonga previously reported one coronavirus case that emerged in quarantine last October, after the person had arrived on an Air New Zealand flight. The country requires arriving travelers to quarantine for 21 days, and about 60 percent of the population has received two doses of a Covid vaccine.

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