Tonga has recorded its first COVID-19 case, leaving just North Korea, Turkmenistan and neighbouring Tuvalu and Nauru as the last remaining COVID-19-free nations in the world.
The Pacific archipelago’s coronavirus-free status ended in late October after a fully vaccinated passenger from a Christchurch repatriation flight tested positive while in hotel quarantine, a measure Tonga has enforced for anyone entering the country since the pandemic began in early 2020.
"The case returned a negative pre-departure test before leaving New Zealand,” New Zealand’s Ministry of Health confirmed.
Tonga will now be thrust into a snap lockdown, with Prime Minister Pohiva Tu'i'onenoa saying he expects the stay at home orders for residents on the main island of Tongatapu to last seven days. Residents will live with a daily curfew of 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. and will only be permitted to venture out for essential services.
On Wednesday, the infected individual returned a negative test, according to Matangi Tonga Online.
A final negative result will be required before the week’s end, and the individual will still need to quarantine for 21 days.
The island nation of Tonga has reported its first-ever case of COVID-19 after a traveler from New Zealand tested positive. Tonga is among the few remaining nations in the world that have avoided outbreaks of the virus. By @nickgbperry. https://t.co/tzlWmK811s— The Associated Press (@AP) October 29, 2021
Like many Pacific nations, Tonga faces struggles associated with an isolated location, susceptibility to climate change, small population size, and limited employment opportunities and public services. As a result, one in three children lives in poverty, as do 23% of all adults.
Just 35% of the population have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Should a COVID-19 outbreak occur, the results could be disastrous.
Jonathan Pryke, the director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, said countries like Tonga desperately need to ramp up their vaccination drives if they hope to minimise the potentially devastating impact even one or two COVID-19 cases could inflict.
He has called for coordinated efforts between donors, Tongan leaders, organisations, churches, and the private sector.
"There are enormous challenges involved with an effective rollout campaign in many countries, especially those with many islands ... or with large populations in remote communities spread across mountains and islands,” he wrote for the Conversation. “Pacific leaders and health professionals also face widespread misinformation about vaccines, cultural stigma (many Pacific nations have never run an adult vaccination campaign), and logistical challenges related to cold chain storage and their already-stretched health systems.”
Pryke added: “If more concerted effort is not applied to getting needles into Pacific Islanders’ arms, then at best these countries will be left behind as other economies open up to one another, and at worst quarantine systems will fail and the virus itself will overwhelm their vulnerable systems.”