A COVID-19-hit Australian warship yesterday docked in Tonga, delivering desperately needed aid to the volcano-and-tsunami-stricken nation under strict “no-contact” protocols.
Tongan Minister of Health Saia Piukala said that the crew of the HMAS Adelaide would follow drastic health protocols to ensure that 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 was deployed as part of an international aid effort after a Jan. 15 eruption that generated massive tsunami waves and blanketed the island nation in toxic ash.
The warship 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 that 23 COVID-19 cases had been detected on the vessel.
Piukala said that number had by yesterday increased to 29.
The ship’s crew of more than 600 sailors are fully vaccinated against the virus, and the Australian Defence Force on Tuesday said that the initial 23 cases were asymptomatic or only mildly affected.
The military said that the ship has a 40-bed hospital, including operating theaters and a critical care ward.
Piukala said that contactless protocols had been applied to all relief supplies, including those aboard the Adelaide, meaning that all goods offloaded from foreign planes or ships would be left in isolation for three days before being handled by Tongans.
The ship is said to be loaded with about 250,000 liters 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 Minister for Defence Peter Dutton said on Tuesday. “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.”
However, COVID-19 restrictions are already hampering the aid effort in other ways.
Japan announced that its aid aircraft would pause trips between Australia and Tonga due to four COVID-19 cases among the mission’s staff.
A Japanese Ministry of Defense official said: “We are making sure that the impact on the mission is minimal, and once our review of anti-infection measures is completed, we’ll continue the mission.”
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