WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Entrepreneur Elon Musk is helping reconnect Tonga to the internet after a volcanic eruption and tsunami cut off the South Pacific nation more than three weeks ago, according to officials, while repairs on an undersea cable are proving more difficult than first thought.
The tsunami severed the sole fiber-optic cable that connects Tonga to the rest of the world and most people remain without reliable connections.
Three people were confirmed killed in the Jan. 15 eruption of the massive undersea volcano and the resulting tsunami, and several small settlements in outlying islands were wiped out and a thick layer of volcanic ash that blanketed the main island tainted much of the drinking water.
Tonga had 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 aboard ships and planes delivering critical aid after the volcanic eruption.
With many displaced people in the aftermath of the eruption, an already fragile health care system and the isolation of the islands, the outbreak is a particular cause for concern, said Katie Greenwood, the head of delegation in the Pacific for the International Red Cross.
“Resourcing community health and primary health facilities, especially in remote locations, is extremely challenging,” she told The Associated Press. “COVID most certainly presents a threat to these systems and to vulnerable people who may not access the level of care required.”
Many Tongans are now in lockdown with their communications severely restricted due to the severed undersea cable.
But with Musk’s involvement, there was hope that better connectivity would be restored soon.
A top official in neighboring Fiji tweeted that a team from Musk’s SpaceX company was in Fiji establishing a station that would help reconnect Tonga through SpaceX satellites.
SpaceX runs a network of nearly 2,000 low-orbit satellites called Starlink, which provides internet service to remote places around the world.
Fiji Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum tweeted about the SpaceX work, saying the volcano’s shockwave had “shattered Tonga’s internet connection, adding days of gut-wrenching uncertainty to disaster assessments.”
A spokeswoman for Sayed-Khaiyum said Wednesday she was waiting for more information about the Starlink project before providing further details. SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment.
Musk had earlier shown interest in Tonga’s plight. Less than a week after the eruption, he asked on Twitter: “Could people from Tonga let us know if it is important for SpaceX to send over Starlink terminals?”
New Zealand politician Dr. Shane Reti wrote to Musk asking him to help provide a Starlink connection. After the reports from Fiji emerged, Reti tweeted: “Very pleased. Elon Musk providing satellite to Tonga.”
Meanwhile Samiuela Fonua, the chairperson at Tonga Cable Ltd., the state-owned company that owns the crucial undersea cable, told the AP that repairs to the cable might not be completed until the end of next week.
Fonua said the good news was that the crew aboard the repair ship CS Reliance had managed to locate both ends of the damaged cable. The bad news, he said, was the damage was extensive and his company didn’t have enough cable aboard the ship to replace a mangled section of more than 80 kilometers (50 miles).
Fonua said there was extra cable aboard the Reliance that was owned by other companies, and Tonga Cable was hoping to secure agreements with those companies to use it.
A U.N. team has provided small satellites and other telecommunications support to boost connectivity and communications, said spokesperson Stephane Dujarric, and more equipment was on the way.
Dujarric said that UNICEF had sent 15,000 rapid test kits and that the World Health Organization was sending 5,000 PCR tests to help with the outbreak.
The outbreak started after two Tongan dockworkers tested positive for the virus last week. Despite efforts to stop the virus from spreading, the number of cases has been growing and Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni said Wednesday that infections more than doubled overnight, with 19 new cases.
That brings the total to 35 cases overall in the nation of 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 Tuesday included people who went out to drink kava, a popular intoxicating drink made from the root of a local plant, with a friend who was infected.
“It is prohibited for kava clubs to operate at this time,” Piukala reminded Tongans, according to the Matangi Tonga online news portal.
With communications restricted due to the severed undersea cable, Sovaleni addressed Tongans on Wednesday over the radio to update them on the outbreak.
Tonga had been doing well with its vaccinations before the current outbreak, but now that the virus has reached the country, thousands have been turning out for shots, according to the Health Ministry.
On Monday, 2,185 people received booster shots, 140 people got their first doses and 281 received second doses, Matangi Tonga reported.
Overall, 97% of the eligible population, aged 12 and up, have received at least one dose and 88% have received a second. At least 67% of Tonga's total population is now fully vaccinated, according to the Health Ministry.