Nuku'alofa, Tonga — A coronavirus-hit Australian warship docked in Tonga on Wednesday, delivering desperately needed aid to theunder strict "no-contact" protocols. Tongan Health Minister Saia Piukala said the crew of the HMAS Adelaide would follow drastic health protocols to ensure the remote Pacific kingdom remains one of the few places in the world still free of COVID-19.
"The ship will berth and no contacts will be made. Australians from the ship will unload their cargoes and sail from port," he told reporters.
The Adelaide was deployed as part of an international aid effort after the January 15 eruption that generated massive tsunami waves and blanketed the island nation in toxic ash.
The warship is carrying about 80 tons of relief supplies, including water, medical kits and engineering equipment.
Despite all crew members testing negative before departing Brisbane, officials in Canberra on Tuesday said 23 coronavirus cases had been detected on the vessel. Piukala said that number had increased to 29 by Wednesday.
The ship's 600-plus crew are fully vaccinated, and the Australian Defence Force said Tuesday that the initial 23 patients were asymptomatic or only mildly affected.
It said the ship has a 40-bed hospital, including operating theaters and a critical care ward.
Piukala said contactless protocols were being applied to all relief supplies, including those aboard the HMAS Adelaide, meaning all goods offloaded from foreign planes or ships would be left in isolation for three days before being handled by Tongans.
The ship is said to be loaded with about 66,000 gallons of water, buckets, jerry cans and portable field-testing kits that can now be offloaded.
"We can do that in a contactless way, spray the equipment so that the chance of passing on the virus is obviously negligible," Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton said Tuesday. "Under no circumstance will we compromise the health and well-being of those Tongans who have already had a concerted effort against the virus by protecting themselves, and the virus is not present on the island."
But coronavirus restrictions are already hampering the aid effort in other ways.
Japan has announced its aid aircraft will pause trips between Australia and Tonga due to four COVID-19 cases among the mission's staff.
"We are making sure that the impact on the mission is minimal, and once our review of anti-infection measures is completed, we'll continue the mission," a defense ministry official told AFP.
Tonga closed its borders in early 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe. Since then, the nation of 100,000 has recorded just one COVID-19 case, a man who returned from New Zealand in October last year and has since fully recovered.
However, the devastating blast from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano, which lies about 40 miles north of the capital Nuku'alofa, has created what the Tongan government describes as an "unprecedented disaster."
Entire villages were washed away by tsunamis, while ash has poisoned water supplies and destroyed crops.
Remarkably, there have been only three reported fatalities, which the UN humanitarian agency OCHA said was thanks to effective early warnings issued by the Tongan government.
OCHA said communications severed by the eruption were slowly being restored and assessment teams were visiting hard-to-reach areas to gauge the full scale of the disaster.
It said 85% of Tonga's population had been affected, with access to safe water, ash clearance and food supplies the main priorities.
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