A coronavirus outbreak aboard an Australian aid ship headed for Tonga, which was devastated by a volcanic eruption and a tsunami almost two weeks ago, has prompted concerns about the spread of the virus to the remote Pacific nation, which reported its first and only case in October.
Twenty-three people aboard the ship, the H.M.A.S. Adelaide, have tested positive for the coronavirus and are in isolation, Peter Dutton, Australia’s minister of defense, said at a news conference on Tuesday.
The exact location of the ship and the total number of crew members on board was unclear on Tuesday. Mr. Dutton said the ship departed from Brisbane, Australia, “days ago.”
“We have a vessel obviously that we’re very keen, as quickly as possible, to dock in Tonga so that we can get those supplies off and provide the support to people,” Mr. Dutton said, adding that several planes had been used to unload supplies from the ship.
Mr. Dutton said the ship would attempt to deliver its supplies safely if it were allowed to dock in Tonga. “We can do that in a contactless way, spray the equipment so that the chance of passing on the virus is obviously negligible,” he said.
After the eruption of the volcano, Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, on Jan. 15, Tonga was smothered with ash and swamped with water, complicating efforts to deliver aid. The disaster also cut off the nation’s lone connection to the internet. There are also concerns that aid workers entering the country might be carrying the coronavirus, causing an outbreak, which Tonga has thus far managed to ward off.
Tonga, with a population of about 100,000 people, has reported just one coronavirus case during the pandemic, when an infected person arrived in the country in October on a commercial flight from Christchurch, New Zealand. Tonga requires arriving travelers to quarantine for 21 days, and about 60 percent of the country’s population has received two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine. Tonga’s geographical isolation — its main island is 1,100 miles northeast of New Zealand — has largely helped it to avoid the virus.
“Under no circumstance will we compromise the health and well-being of those Tongans, who have already had a concerted effort against the virus,” said Mr. Dutton.