Tonga: Red Cross tackles triple disaster - COVID-19, volcanic fallout, tsunami

Tonga Red Cross staff and volunteers unloading relief items from the boat to the beach in Nomuka.

Tonga Red Cross staff and volunteers unloading relief items from the boat to the beach in Nomuka.

Photo: Malau Media/IFRC

Kuala Lumpur/Suva 15 April 2022 – Three months on from the devastating volcanic eruption and tsunami, the Pacific island nation of Tonga is battling another disaster: its first serious outbreak of Covid-19 that has forced the Government to extend a State of Emergency and impose a series of lockdowns.

The strict Covid measures have severely impacted the work of government and relief agencies and their ability to distribute relief. Tonga Red Cross has been forced to pare back operations for several weeks, relying on skeleton staff and a core group of volunteers to do essential “contactless” distributions.

First detected in February, the virus reached the outer islands last month, jumping quarantine lines designed to contain it to the main island of Tongatapu. As a result, the lockdown was extended to the Ha’apai group – another blow to hard-hit island communities whose homes and livelihoods were ruined by the eruption and tsunami.

After a three-week delay, a group of 25 Tonga Red Cross staff and volunteers was finally given permission by the Ministry of Health to travel by boat to islands in the Ha’apais to deliver food items, bottled water, family kits and washing kits.

Observing strict “contactless” protocols, the relief teams left supplies on beaches for collection after departure.

Sione Taumoefolau, Secretary-General of Tonga Red Cross said:

“The people of Tonga are tough, but they have faced a once-in-a-lifetime triple disaster, making life very difficult and the relief and recovery operations even harder.

“Following the devastation caused by the volcanic eruptions, being smothered by blankets of toxic ash and hit by a huge tsunami, and then Covid-19, it’s critical to balance the safety of our staff, the health of our communities, and the urgent need to deliver relief supplies.

“Red Cross volunteers on the islands are a crucial lifeline in this operation, keeping us informed of the humanitarian needs on the ground and allowing us to shuttle in much-needed supplies.

“More rain and bad weather during the cyclone season has also impacted our response to those affected.”

The January disaster, combined with lockdown measures restricting business activity, has severely impacted Tonga’s economy. The World Bank puts the bill for overall damage at $US90.4 million – equivalent to 18.5% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Katie Greenwood, Pacific Head of Delegation, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said:

“Disasters of this scale can overwhelm the resources of any nation. It has required a well-coordinated regional response, with Pacific neighbours, the international community and a generous Tongan diaspora, to support vital local relief efforts.

“This effort will extend well beyond the coming weeks and months, helping tsunami-devastated communities rebuild with safer homes and water supplies to be better prepared for future climate disasters.”

For more information, contact:

In Suva: Soneel Ram, +679 9983 688, [email protected]

Asia Pacific Office: Antony Balmain, +60 12 230 8451, [email protected]

Related press releases