Humanitarian efforts to assist Tonga following a volcanic eruption are hampered by the South Pacific nation’s determination to keep Covid-19 at bay, as well as a lack of digging equipment needed to to remove the airport runway.
The submarine eruption of the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano, about 65 km north of the capital Nuku’alofa, caused a tsunami that caused significant damage to the island nation.
Tsunami waves also crossed the Pacific Ocean while the eruption, which created a huge ash cloud, created a sonic surge that could be heard as far away as Alaska.
The Tongan government is expected to formally request assistance from the international community on Tuesday once the full extent of the disaster, which has claimed at least one life, has been assessed.
But the government also stressed the need to maintain its virtually Covid-free status. Tonga was one of the last countries in the world to record a case of Covid-19 after a traveler from New Zealand tested positive in October while in quarantine, causing a national collapse. This remains the only confirmed case in the country.
The government has held talks with Australian and New Zealand officials on imposing strict protocols for humanitarian workers. It is expected to waive the 21-day quarantine period for aid workers.
Curtis Tuihalangingie, of the Tongan embassy in Canberra, told Australia’s national broadcaster ABC that keeping the country free of Covid remains a priority to keep the population safe from a “tsunami of Covid hitting Tonga”.
Australia and New Zealand have loaded aircraft and ships with water purification tools, food, medical supplies and satellite equipment to bolster the Pacific nation’s telecommunications network after the eruption knocked out the submarine cable connecting Tonga to the rest of the world.
Zed Seselja, Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific, told 2GB Radio: “Tonga has achieved great success in keeping Covid out. And of course, as we deliver our humanitarian response, it is going to be a very important factor to consider. ”
The relief effort was also hampered by volcanic ash that covered the island nation, including the main airport. Replacement aircraft were ready to fly from Brisbane and New Zealand as soon as the runway was cleared.
An Australian government spokesman said basic items to help with the cleanup effort, including wheelbarrows, would also be sent at Tonga’s request.
“Images show asphalt on the Nuku’alofa airport runway that needs to be cleared before a C-130 Hercules flight can land with humanitarian aid,” he said. Nanaia Mahuta, New Zealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Tuihalangingie said Tongane also needed masks to prevent locals, especially children, from inhaling the ash.