Cleanup underway on South Pacific Island . . .
The massive volcanic eruption and subsequent tsunami in Tonga on January 15 that destroyed homes and infrastructure has impacted 85 per cent of the country’s population, according to its government. Whole towns have been destroyed, and drinking water is in particularly short supply. An enormous cleanup effort started immediately, and importantly the main airport was quickly cleared of volcanic debris, which has allowed relief flights to land. The country’s only undersea communications cable remains severed, rendering international communications limited to a few locations with satellite capabilities.
International aid, international competition . . .
International aid deliveries began arriving late last week, primarily from Australia and New Zealand. The Asian Development Bank and The World Bank have pledged US$10 million and US$8 million, respectively, in assistance. But already, analysts see aid to Tonga cast in geopolitical terms with Australia and New Zealand competing for influence with Beijing. The Global Times, part of the Chinese Communist Party’s state media apparatus, was quick to trumpet that China’s aid to Tonga was first to arrive. And China holds two-thirds of the South Pacific country’s external debt, mostly linked to loans it provided to rebuild parts of Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital, after destructive riots back in 2006. As a result, Tonga is now saddled with Chinese debt it struggles to repay.
Contactless aid amid COVID concerns . . .
Tonga has registered only one case of COVID-19 in the nearly two-year-old pandemic. While more than 60 per cent of the county’s population has received at least two vaccines, its government is wary of the potential for COVID to arrive with aid workers and to spread through the vulnerable, disaster-hit population. It has, therefore, agreed to receive “contactless” emergency aid, with the aid-carrying plane or boat departing soon after unloading its cargo, thus ensuring no contact with locals. The first such drop-off took place at Tonga’s main airport late last week while an Australian plane delivering aid turned back after one of its crew tested positive for COVID mid-flight. And with the Australian Department of Defence confirming a COVID outbreak aboard a navy ship packed with relief supplies currently en route to Tonga, contactless aid appears a prudent decision.