A coronavirus-hit Australian warship docked in Tonga on Wednesday, delivering desperately needed aid to the volcano-and-tsunami-struck nation under strict “no-contact” protocols.
Saia Piukala, the Tongan health minister, said the crew of HMAS Adelaide would follow drastic health protocols to ensure the remote Pacific kingdom remains one of the few places in the world still free of Covid-19.
“The ship will berth and no contacts will be made. Australians from the ship will unload their cargoes and sail from port,” he told reporters.
The Adelaide, a landing helicopter dock ship, was deployed as part of an international aid effort after the January 15 eruption that generated massive tsunami waves and blanketed the island nation in toxic ash.
The vessel is carrying about 80 tonnes of relief supplies, including water, medical kits and engineering equipment.
Despite all crew members testing negative before departing Brisbane, officials in Canberra on Tuesday said 23 coronavirus cases had been detected on the vessel. Piukala said that number had increased to 29.
The ship’s 600-plus crew are fully vaccinated, and the Australian Defence Force said on Tuesday that the initial 23 patients were asymptomatic or only mildly affected. The ship has a 40-bed hospital, including operating theatres and a critical care ward.
Adelaide is said to be loaded with about 250,000 litres of water, buckets, jerry cans and portable field-testing kits that can now be offloaded.
“We can do that in a contactless way, spray the equipment so that the chance of passing on the virus is obviously negligible,” Australian Defence minister Peter Dutton said.
“Under no circumstance will we compromise the health and well-being of those Tongans who have already had a concerted effort against the virus by protecting themselves, and the virus is not present on the island.”
The devastating blast from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano, which lies about 65 km north of the capital Nuku’alofa, has created what the Tongan government describes as an “unprecedented disaster”.
Entire villages were washed away by tsunamis, while ash has poisoned water supplies and destroyed crops. Three people died.
- AFP, with additional editing by George Russell