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The main island of Tonga has gone into a week-long shutdown after the South Pacific nation reported its very first COVID-19 case of the pandemic late last week.
The COVID-positive traveler, who is fully vaccinated and showed no symptoms, arrived in Tonga last Wednesday on a plane from Christchurch, New Zealand. All 214 others on board the plane have been tested negative, and the infected traveler, a young missionary, is currently in quarantine at a facility.
“So far, we are very happy that nothing but one case has happened,” said Dr. Viliami Puloka to NPR from his home in Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga. The retired GP and public health specialist said it was only a matter of time before the virus reached them.
“I generally think people understand what’s going on, and it has been expected that at some point, as long as this virus is anywhere, this virus is everywhere,” he said.
During the closure, which began at midnight on Tuesday, schools, bars and restaurants will be closed for a week and a curfew will be imposed on the island of Tongatapu, where the majority of Tonga’s population lives. People will only be able to leave their homes for essential business, such as buying groceries, medicine or banking.
Puloka said that although the chance of the virus spreading to the wider community was very small, the community seemed keen to prevent it from spreading. The confirmed case has spurred a rush to get vaccinated, according to local media.
“I think it was a little disappointing because they were looking forward to opening the border and welcoming people from outside, but that’s what happened,” Puloka said.
The risk of shutting the world out
Small Pacific island nations and territories have been spared the worst of the pandemic because of their ability to isolate themselves from the rest of the world.
Puloka said that if an eruption of COVID-19 were to occur in Tonga, a cluster of islands about 500 miles southeast of Fiji, its limited resources and natural isolation would promote “a very huge disaster, which I do not think we really can handle. “
Yet a long-term closure of borders for countries that are economically dependent on commodity exports and tourism has led to a glaring irony over the pandemic: Those who have managed to keep the pandemic out may be some of the last to recover from it.
A political brief from the Australia-based Lowy Institute released last year warned that countries and territories across the Pacific were facing a potentially “lost decade” and a permanent economic downturn due to the economic and social damage caused by the pandemic .
A year later, the outlook for the region remains largely the same, says Roland Raja, chief economist at the Lowy Institute.
“Economically, the recovery has been very slow in the Pacific while the rest of the world is on the way back,” he told NPR.
The slow return of tourism in some Pacific countries and territories is to blame. While others, such as Papua New Guinea – the largest economy in the region and a country dependent on commodity exports – are simply more overwhelmed by COVID-19 than they were last year, Raja said.
And while the region as a whole has a good vaccination rate, Raja says the light at the end of the tunnel “is actually not even clear.”
“I think at the moment that’s how it is, it looks like the Pacific is very likely to be among the slowest, if not the slowest region, to recover from this crisis,” he said.
When will it be worth reopening to the world?
Some Pacific states, which include 2.3 million people on about 15% of the planet, have tried to balance their economic needs with the health of their people.
French Polynesia is one of them. Tourism is the main economic driver of French overseas territory, and officials have estimated a loss of nearly $ 1.2 billion because the pandemic halted international tourism.
Victor Bonito / Reef Explorer Fiji / AFP via Getty
After first closing its borders in March 2020, French Polynesia, which includes the famous tourist islands of Tahiti and Bora Bora, has since opened and closed its borders a handful of times. The area has also made exceptions for French citizens and locals, such as politicians, to travel in and out, says Guillaume Colombani, a longtime tourist worker in Tahiti.
Still, he says the tourism sector “has suffered a lot since the start of the pandemic.”
Paris controls the borders. Every time they open, people there get “very scared,” Colombani says. French Polynesia has hit over 45,000 COVID-19 cases and about 636 deaths.
This attempt at balancing has left many, like Colombani, unsure “that all the decisions that were made or were made were very good for us.”