23 Australians on board ship bringing aid to Tonga have virus

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In this photo released by the Tonga Red Cross Society, Red Cross teams set up temporary shelter in Kanokupolu, western Tongatapu, on Friday, January 21, 2022, as the Tonga group of islands is grappling with the aftermath of the recent underwater volcanic eruption. (Tonga Red Cross Society via AP)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Nearly two dozen sailors on an Australian military ship that will deliver aid to Tonga have tested positive for the coronavirus, officials said on Tuesday, raising fears they may bringing COVID-19 to a Pacific nation that has so far managed to avoid any outbreak.

Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton said his government was working with Tongan authorities to keep the ship at sea and ensure there was no threat to Tonga’s 105,000 people.

Tongan authorities fear that accepting international aid could cause a disaster worse than the massive eruption of an undersea volcano 10 days ago. The eruption triggered a tsunami that destroyed dozens of homes and volcanic ash contaminated drinking water.

Since the start of the pandemic, Tonga has reported only one case of COVID-19 and has avoided any outbreaks. It is one of the few countries in the world currently completely virus-free. About 61% of Tongans are fully immunized, according to Our World in Data.

Australian officials said 23 crew members were infected on HMAS Adelaide, which departed Brisbane on Friday.

“They desperately need help, but they don’t want the risk of COVID,” Dutton told Sky News. “We will work on all of this as quickly as possible.”

This is the second aid shipment from Australia in which at least one crew member has tested positive. A C-17 Globemaster military transport plane has already turned back mid-air after someone was diagnosed.

Meanwhile, a cable company official said the main island of Tonga could see internet service restored within two weeks, although repairing the connection to smaller islands could take much longer.

The only fiber optic undersea cable that connects the Pacific nation to the outside world was severed after the eruption and tsunami.

This has prevented most people from connecting with loved ones abroad. For days people were unable to communicate by phone, email or social media.

Since then, Tonga’s Digicel has been able to restore international calling services in some areas using satellite connections. Some people were able to email or get limited internet connectivity.

Samieula Fonua, who chairs the board of Tonga Cable Ltd., the state-owned company that owns the fiber optic cable, said a repair ship had sailed from Papua New Guinea and was due to call at Samoa from here on Monday to stock up. . It is then expected to arrive in Tonga by February 1.

Fonua said the CS Reliance had a crew of around 60 on board, including engineers, divers and medical personnel. He said his equipment included a robot that could assess the cable on the seabed.

Fonua said preliminary estimates indicated the cable break was located about 37 kilometers (23 miles) off the main island of Tongatapu. He said all was well, the team should be able to fix the cable by February 8, restoring internet to around 80% of customers in Tonga.

The cable runs from Tonga to Fiji, a distance of around 800 kilometers (500 miles), and was first put into service in 2013 at a cost of around $16 million. It was funded by grants from the World Bank Group and the Asian Development Bank and quintupled Tonga’s internet capacity.

But like many small Pacific nations, Tonga relies heavily on a single cable to stay connected and has little back-up plan. A cable break three years ago believed to have been caused by a ship dragging its anchor also led to weeks of disruption.

A second domestic fiber optic cable that connects the small islands of Tonga to the main island could prove much more difficult to repair. Fonua said the cable passes near the underwater volcano which erupted and may have been badly damaged. It could require major repairs or even replacement, he said.

Fonua said the focus was on fixing the main international cable and they could take care of domestic connections “later”.

He said Tongans had some understanding of the communications disruption caused by the disaster, which killed three people, destroyed dozens of homes and contaminated water supplies with volcanic ash.

“People are calm. Coming out of a blackout, just being able to call outside and send an email calmed them down a bit,” Fonua said. “By the time they start to get more frustrated, hopefully we’ll have the cable hooked up by then.”