British and Australian navy ships arrived in Tonga on Wednesday and attempted to deliver aid without making contact with anybody ashore to avoid spreading the coronavirus in a nation which has never had an outbreak.
The danger of spreading the disease was underscored when nearly two dozen sailors aboard the Australian ship HMAS Adelaide were reported infected on Tuesday, raising fears they could bring the coronavirus to the small Pacific archipelago devastated by an undersea volcanic eruption and a tsunami on Jan. 15.
Since the pandemic began, Tonga has reported just a single case of COVID-19. It’s one of the few countries in the world currently completely virus free. About 61% of Tongans are fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data.
Meanwhile, the U.S. announced it would provide an additional $2.5 million in humanitarian assistance to Tonga through the U.S. Agency for International Development. The aid was in addition to an initial pledge of $100,000.
Britain said its ship the HMS Spey arrived with 30,000 liters (7,900 gallons) of bottled water, medical supplies for more than 300 first aid kits, and basic sanitation products. It said none of its sailors disembarked the ship, and instead moved the supplies ashore by crane.
“The U.K. is a long-standing partner of the Pacific islands, and having the ship deployed in the Indo-Pacific meant that we could be there for Tonga in their hour of need, as the island begins to rebuild their homes and communities,” said the Minister for the Armed Forces James Heappey in a statement.
The Australian government said its ship had completed the 3,300-kilometer (2,050-mile) voyage from Brisbane and would deliver supplies without contact with the local population to avoid infections.
“We appreciate the decision of the government of Tonga to enable HMAS Adelaide to dock and offload the humanitarian and medical supplies, and the high priority it has placed on COVID safety throughout the recovery process,” the statement said. “The ship is undertaking an entirely contactless delivery of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief supplies.”
With restoration of the drinking water supply a major priority, the ship brings a desalination plant. It’s also carrying helicopters and engineering equipment.
Australia said it was widening its disaster support to include restoration of power and communications.
Under pandemic measures, Tonga typically requires visitors to quarantine for three weeks on arrival and that complicates the international disaster response. All international aid is to be delivered without local contact.
Tongan authorities have been wary that accepting international aid could usher in a bigger disaster than the huge eruption of the volcano. The tsunami killed three people.
The ship is the second aid mission from Australia in which at least one crew member tested positive. A C-17 Globemaster military transport plane was earlier turned around midflight after a person aboard was diagnosed with the coronavirus.