23 Australians on ship delivering aid to Tonga have virus





WELLINGTON – Nearly two dozen sailors on an Australian military ship that will deliver aid to Tonga have tested positive for the coronavirus, officials said Tuesday, raising fears they could bring COVID-19 to a Pacific nation that has hitherto been there managed to prevent outbreaks.

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

Tongan authorities were wary that accepting international aid could lead to a bigger disaster than the massive eruption of a submarine volcano 10 days ago. The eruption triggered a tsunami that destroyed dozens of homes, and volcanic ash has tainted drinking water.

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

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

“They desperately need the help, but they don’t want to be at risk from COVID,” Dutton told Sky News. “We will process all of that as soon as possible.”

It is the second aid shipment from Australia where at least one crew member has tested positive. A C-17 Globemaster military transport plane was previously turned over mid-flight after someone was diagnosed.

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

The single submarine fiber optic cable connecting the Pacific country to the outside world was severed after the eruption and tsunami.

As a result, most people were unable to connect with loved ones abroad. For days, people couldn’t get through it on their phone, email, or social media.

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Since then, Tonga’s Digicel has been able to restore international calling services to some areas by using satellite links. Some people have been able to send emails or get a limited internet connection.

Samieula Fonua, chairman of the board of Tonga Cable Ltd., the state-owned company that owns the fiber optic cable, said a repair ship had left Papua New Guinea and would stop in Samoa on Monday to pick up supplies. . It should then arrive in Tonga by February 1.

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

Fonua said preliminary estimates indicated the cable break was located about 37 kilometers (23 miles) off the coast of the main island of Tongatapu. He said that if all goes well, the crew should be able to repair the cable by Feb. 8 and restore the internet for about 80% of Tonga’s customers.

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The cable runs from Tonga to Fiji, a distance of approximately 800 kilometers (500 miles), and was first commissioned in 2013 at a cost of approximately $16 million. Funded by grants from the World Bank Group and the Asian Development Bank, it increased Tonga’s internet capacity fivefold.

But like many small Pacific countries, Tonga relies heavily on a single cable to stay connected and has little in the way of a backup plan. Three years ago, a cable break believed to have been caused by a ship dragging at anchor also led to weeks of interruptions.

A second, inland fiber optic cable connecting the smaller islands of Tonga to the main island would prove much more difficult to repair. Fonua said the cable runs near the submarine volcano that has erupted and may have been severely damaged. It may need extensive repairs or even replacement, he said.

Fonua said the focus was on repairing the main international cable and that they could handle the domestic connections “at a later date”.

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

‚ÄúPeople are calm. Since they came out of a total blackout and could just call out and send an email, they sort of settled,” Fonua said. “By the time they get frustrated, I hope we can get the cable.”

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