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Tonga enters lockdown after first community transmitted COVID-19 cases detected

This photo shows the Australian Navy's HMAS Adelaide docked at Vuna Wharf in Tonga's capital Nukualofa on Jan. 26 to deliver aid following the Jan. 15 eruption of the nearby Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haapai underwater volcano. Tonga's deputy chief of mission in Australia Curtis Tu'ihalangingie told Reuters that the infected dock workers were not at the same wharf the HMAS Adelaide docked at.
Mary Lyn Fonua
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Matangi Tonga/AFP via Getty Imag
This photo shows the Australian Navy's HMAS Adelaide docked at Vuna Wharf in Tonga's capital Nukualofa on Jan. 26 to deliver aid following the Jan. 15 eruption of the nearby Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haapai underwater volcano. Tonga's deputy chief of mission in Australia Curtis Tu'ihalangingie told Reuters that the infected dock workers were not at the same wharf the HMAS Adelaide docked at.

Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni announced a lockdown for his nation of 106,000 people after it recorded its first cases of community transmission of COVID-19. Tonga's High Commission in London confirmed the announcement and said it would be reviewed every 48 hours.

Two workers tested positive Tuesday, local media reported, after the Ministry of Health increased testing at the wharf they worked at amid a flow of international aid following last month's volcanic eruption and tsunami.

Mr. Sovaleni said Wednesday that three more people tested positive for the virus. The lockdown will require people to remain at home, though aid personnel will be exempt.

These newly recorded cases bring Tonga's overall total for the pandemic to six. The South Pacific archipelago nation recorded its first COVID-19 case last October. Following the volcanic eruption, there had been worries that the influx of foreign development workers would bring coronavirus to Tonga. An Australian Navy ship had 23 COVID cases on board when it docked last week to deliver pallets of supplies.

Reuters reports that the Australian Defence Force's Chief of Joint Operations Greg Bilton said in an interview that ship is unlikely the source of the first two infections. Tonga's deputy chief of mission in Australia Curtis Tu'ihalangingie told Reuters that the infected dock workers were not at the same wharf the Australian ship docked at.

The prime minister said at his press conference that authorities were trying to identify which ship the dock workers were unloading.

"We have the record of ships that had been here, at time that could have spread this virus," Mr. Sovaleni said. He said the lockdown would help slow the spread, and "no boat will be allowed to go from one island to another. No more aeroplane flights to Ha'apai, Vava'u, or for them to come here to Tongatapu."

Tonga is a nation of 171 islands, of which 45 are inhabited. Last month's eruption left some covered in ash and cut off from communication when an undersea fiber-optic cable was damaged.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Granitz