An Australian plane delivering aid supplies to the Pacific nation of Tonga was turned away after a positive COVID-19 case was discovered on board.
According to The Guardian, the flight left Brisbane on Thursday afternoon but was turned around halfway through its flight when it was notified that someone on board had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Many of the country’s 170 islands were devastated after a volcano eruption and subsequent tsunami struck last weekend. A thick blanket of ash has covered the main island of Tongatapu, polluting drinking water and making it dangerous for some residents to be outside and exposed to the soot.
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Despite desperately needing the help, Tongan officials have expressed concern about aid agencies coming to the islands and bringing the coronavirus with them.
So far, the country has managed to avoid any outbreaks, mostly by implementing strict restrictions that keep outsiders away.
An Australian defence spokeswoman told Reuters all members of the flight crew tested negative via rapid antigen tests before they boarded. However, the results from additional PCR tests came in mid-flight, showing that one person had tested positive for COVID-19, and the plane was ordered to turn back. The supplies were moved to another aircraft that left Brisbane on Friday.
There is some respite, however: other aid vessels have made contact with Tonga in that time, and more are on the way.
A New Zealand naval ship carrying 250,000 litres of water and desalination equipment arrived Friday, and several other flights from Australia and New Zealand also landed, carrying communication equipment and generators.
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“We are cleaning the ash and have been since Monday,” Branko Sugar, a 61-year-old who runs a bottle shop and fishing charter business from the capital Nuku’alofa, said.
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“Everything is so dusty, and we are running out of water,” he told Reuters over a patchy telephone line.
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Dr. Abhishek Rimal with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies told the Telegraph that drinking water is the “major priority issue” at this time, because drinking from contaminated rainwater harvest systems right now would result in severe gastric problems and acute diarrhea.
He also added that longer-term environmental damage could result in acid rain, impacting staple crops as well as the local fish population, which is “a key part” of Tongan diets.
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United Nations spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said assessment teams have now reached most parts of the country, including the most remote and isolated islands.
“We remain seriously concerned about access to safe water for 50,000 people throughout the country. Water quality testing continues, and most people are relying on bottled water,” he said.
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Hundreds of homes in Tonga’s smaller outer islands have been destroyed, and at least three people were killed after Saturday’s huge eruption triggered tsunami waves, which rolled over the islands, causing what the government has called an unprecedented disaster.
The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted with a blast heard 2,300 kilometres away in New Zealand and sent tsunami waves across the Pacific Ocean.
James Garvin, chief scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said the force of the eruption was estimated to be equivalent to five to 10 megatons of TNT, an explosive force more than 500 times the nuclear bomb dropped by the United States on Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of the Second World War.
— With a file from Reuters
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