Moss helps restore tongan internet; virus outbreak growing

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) – Entrepreneur Elon Musk helps reconnect Tonga to the internet after volcanic eruption and tsunami The South Pacific nation was cut off more than three weeks ago, officials say, while repairs on submarine cable are proving more difficult than previously thought.

The tsunami severed the only fiber-optic cable that connects Tonga to the rest of the world and most people remain without reliable connections.

Three people were reported killed in the January 15 eruption of the massive submarine volcano and the resulting tsunami, and several small settlements on remote islands were wiped out and a thick layer of volcanic ash covering the main island stained much of the drinking water. .

Tonga has avoided the COVID-19 pandemic for more than two years, but it is now in the midst of an outbreak with new infections growing rapidly after the virus was apparently brought in by foreign military crews on ships and planes delivering critical aid after the volcano. eruption.

With many displaced people following the eruption, already a fragile health care system and the isolation of the islands, the explosion is a particular concern, said Katie Greenwood, the head of the Pacific delegation for the International Red Cross.

“Resurfacing community health and primary health care facilities, especially in remote areas, is extremely challenging,” she told The Associated Press. “COVID certainly poses a threat to these systems and to vulnerable people who may not access the level of care required.”

Many Tongans are now locked in with their communications severely restricted due to the severed submarine cable.

But with Musk’s involvement, there was hope that better connectivity would be restored soon.

A chief executive in neighboring Fiji said that a team from Musk’s SpaceX company was in Fiji to establish a station to help reconnect Tonga with SpaceX satellites.

SpaceX runs a network of nearly 2,000 low-orbiting satellites called Starlink, which provides internet service to remote locations around the world.

Fiji Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum codified SpaceX’s work, saying the volcano’s shockwave “shattered Tonga’s internet connection, adding days of heartbreaking uncertainty to catastrophic estimates.”

A spokeswoman for Sayed-Khaiyum said on Wednesday she was waiting for more information on the Starlink project before giving further details. SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment.

Musk had earlier shown interest in Tonga’s difficulties. Less than a week after the eruption, he asked on Twitter, “Could people from Tonga let us know if it’s important for SpaceX to send via Starlink terminals?”

New Zealand politician Dr Shane Reti wrote to Musk asking him to help provide a Starlink connection. After reports from Fiji surfaced, Reti tweeted, “Very pleased. Elon Musk is providing a satellite to Tonga.”

Meanwhile, Samiuela Fonua, the chairman of Tonga Cable Ltd., the state-owned company that owns the crucial submarine cable, told the AP that repairs to the cable may not be completed until the end of next week.

Fonua said the good news was that the crew on the repair ship CS Reliance managed to locate both ends of the damaged cable. The bad news, he said, was the damage was extensive and his company did not have enough cable on the ship to replace a damaged section of more than 80 kilometers (50 miles).

Fonua said there was an extra cable on the Reliance that was owned by other companies, and Tonga Cable hoped to secure agreements with those companies to use it.

A UN team has provided small satellites and other telecommunications support to boost connectivity and communication, said spokesman Stephane Dujarric, and more equipment is on the way.

Dujarric said UNICEF had sent 15,000 rapid test kits and that the World Health Organization had sent 5,000 PCR tests to help with the blast.

The blast began after two Tongan dock workers tested positive for the virus last week. Despite efforts to prevent the spread of the virus, the number of cases has grown and Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni said on Wednesday that infections more than doubled overnight, with 19 new cases.

That brings the total to 35 cases in total in the nation from 105,000 – 34 in the current outbreak and one from last October, when a missionary tested positive after returning from Africa via New Zealand.

Health Minister Saia Piukala said several of the new cases reported on Tuesday included people going out to drink kava, a popular drunken drink made from the root of a local plant, with a friend who was infected.

“It is forbidden for hollow clubs to operate at this time,” Piukala reminded Tongans, according to the online news portal Matangi Tonga.

With communications limited due to the severed submarine cable, Sovaleni addressed Tongans on Wednesday by radio to update them on the blast.

Tonga has done well with its vaccinations before the current outbreak, but now that the virus has reached the country, thousands have come for shots, according to the Ministry of Health.

On Monday, 2,185 people received booster shots, 140 people received their first dose and 281 received second doses, Matangi Tonga reported.

Overall, 97% of the eligible population, aged 12 and over, received at least one dose and 88% received a second. At least 67% of Tonga’s total population is now fully vaccinated, according to the Ministry of Health.

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Rise reported from Bangkok.

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