Musk helps restore Tongan internet, virus outbreak growing
WELLINGTON (AP) -- Elon Musk, an entrepreneur, is working to reconnect Tonga to the Internet after a tsunami and volcanic eruption cut off the South Pacific nation three weeks ago. However, repairs to an underwater cable are taking longer than expected.
The tsunami cut the only fiber-optic cable connecting Tonga with the rest of the globe, and many people are still without reliable connections.
Three people were confirmed to have been killed by the Jan. 15 eruption and tsunami of the huge undersea volcano. Small settlements on outlying islands were also destroyed. The thick layer of volcanicash that covered the main island was a source of contamination for much of the water supply.
Tonga had been able to avoid the COVID-19 pandemic in more than two decades, but now it is experiencing an epidemic with new infections rapidly growing after the virus was brought aboard by military personnel from abroad. These crews were apparently delivering crucial aid following the volcanic eruption.
The eruption has left many people displaced. The health system is already in crisis and is isolated from the islands. Katie Greenwood, the Pacific head of delegation for the International Red Cross, stated that it is difficult to find community health services and primary health facilities in remote areas. COVID is a serious threat to these systems as well as vulnerable individuals who might not be able to access the care they need.
Many Tongans are currently in lockdown, with communication severely limited by the severed submarine cable.
Musk's involvement gave hope that connectivity could be restored quickly.
Fiji's top official tweeted that Musk's SpaceX team was visiting Fiji to establish a station that would allow Tonga to be connected through SpaceX satellites.
SpaceX operates a network of almost 2,000 satellites in low orbit called Starlink that provides internet service to remote areas around the globe.
Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum, Fiji's Attorney General, tweeted about SpaceX. He said that the shockwave caused by the volcano had "shattered Tonga’s internet connection, adding days and gut-wrenching uncertainty for disaster assessments."
A spokeswoman representing Sayed-Khaiyum stated Wednesday that she was still waiting for additional information on the Starlink project. SpaceX did not respond. Musk had previously expressed interest in Tonga’s situation. He asked Twitter users, less than a week following the eruption: "Could anyone from Tonga tell us if SpaceX should send over Starlink terminals?"
Dr. Shane Reti, a New Zealand politician, wrote to Musk asking for help to establish Starlink. Reti tweeted, "Very happy" after the Fiji reports emerged. Elon Musk provides satellite for Tonga
Samiuela Fonua (chairperson of Tonga Cable Ltd.), the state-owned company which owns the critical undersea cable, said to the AP that repairs might not be complete until next week.
Fonua stated that the good news was the crew onboard the repair ship CS Reliance had been able to locate both ends the damaged cable. He said that the bad news was that the damage to the cable was extensive and that his company did not have enough cable on board to replace the damaged section.
Fonua stated that there was additional cable on the Reliance owned by other companies and Tonga Cable was looking to make agreements with these companies to use it.
Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for the U.N., stated that small satellites were provided by the team and other support to boost connectivity and communication. More equipment was also on its way.
Dujarric stated that UNICEF had provided 15,000 rapid testing kits, and that the World Health Organization had sent 5,000 PCR tests in an effort to control the outbreak.
Two Tongan dockworkers were tested positive for the disease last week. Despite all efforts to stop the virus spreading, the epidemic has continued to grow. Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni stated Wednesday that the number of infections had more than doubled overnight and that 19 new cases were reported.
This brings the nation's total to 35 cases. There are 34 currently and one from October last year, when a missionary returned from Africa via New Zealand.
Saia Piukala, Health Minister, said that several of Tuesday's new cases included people who went out to kava with a friend who had been infected.
According to Matangi Tonga's online news portal, Piukala reminded Tongans that kava clubs are not allowed to operate at this moment.
Sovaleni spoke to Tongans via radio on Wednesday to update them about the outbreak, despite communication being cut off by the severed submarine cable.
Tonga had been doing well before the current epidemic, but thousands of people have started to show up for shots now that the virus is in the country.
Matangi Tonga reported that 2,185 people were given booster shots Monday. 140 received their first doses while 281 received their second doses.
97% of eligible people, 12 years old and older, have had at least one dose, while 88% have received two. According to the Health Ministry, at least 67% of Tonga’s total population are now fully vaccinated.