A Year Inside a Country Without Coronavirus: Tonga

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A 2020 Without Coronavirus in Tonga

A 2020 without coronavirus does exist in Tonga, a small island nation.

Imagining a coronavirus-free 2020 is difficult, right?

For many of us, the mess COVID-19 has caused globally has been a defining factor for the year 2020, and it doesn’t seem to be going away in 2021 – at least just yet.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak began in late 2019 until the time of writing at the start of 2021, a cluster of small isolated island nations in the middle of the South Pacific has managed to avoid the pandemic. These 7 countries are thought to be the only official countries to still remain coronavirus-free.

Tonga has remained one of the few countries without COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. And a weekend trip to Tonga has now turned into the longest weekend of my life (so far), at almost one year. And I presume it will be much longer than the one year now, actually.

How Did it All Happen?

If someone had told me that 10 months ago I’d still be in Tonga, I would have laughed. Even when I first got stuck here and had to stay for 3 weeks during the nationwide lockdown, I thought 3 weeks was unbelievable and laughable.

Life here is… kind of normal? But also kind of not.

The new normal, I suppose. 

Read About My First 8 Months in Tonga Here

Normal life this time last year did not have me in a house on the beach with 3 dogs and an annoying cat in the height of summer. In fact, this time last year I distinctly remember being freezing in Beijing as I prepared to leave for a couple of weeks to do a language course in South Korea. I left Beijing on the 20th January 2020 presuming I’d be back at the end of January (2020. Not 2021. Or 2022.)

Spending a year in the South Pacific was not something I had envisioned, but like life for many people in 2020 mine was kind of turned upside-down (quite literally here in the southern hemisphere).

So Tonga has done a great job of keeping the virus out, basically by being incredibly strict. There are still a few repatriation flights that come in and all who do must do 3 weeks of quarantine at a designated hotel, and this hotel area is off-limits to the public – with the whole road closed down around the area. Post and any goods that come into the country must also be quarantined and there is still a curfew in place throughout the Kingdom from 12 am – 5 am. (They lifted this curfew for one night over New Year’s Eve, though!)

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Accepting Paradise

It took a while for me to accept my situation. For about 8 months I spent the whole time in limbo; neither really living here nor having a home anywhere else. I thought that getting back to China might be possible much sooner, and every month that passed I didn’t lose hope. 

But things are different now. I’ve accepted where I am and have stopped thinking about getting back to China. Whilst we all naively thought that the pandemic would ‘be over soon’, I kept waiting for the day when this would come and ‘2020 would end’ so we could get back to ‘normal life’. But I now realize in hindsight how wrong this way of viewing things was.

I also was considering going back to the UK, since that’s where I’m from. At first, it was simply an issue of not having a place to stay, since I didn’t want to put my parents at risk. But now it’s more of an impossibility since the UK has closed its borders, and most of the surrounding countries have closed their borders to the UK due to their high COVID-19 numbers and the new variant of the virus.

The UK is at the moment the only place I can get a flight out to, since New Zealand, the only country you can transit through, only allows transit back to your home country.

So now both the UK and China are off the cards for the next couple of months at least, I can move forwards with life here.

It’s been bizarre, and spending my birthday, Thanksgiving, and Christmas in 30-degree heat was certainly a first.

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Christmas Day in Tonga

The Difficulties of Paradise Life

Now I find one of the biggest difficulties here for me personally now is the distinct lack of… people. I am used to living in a city which has a bigger population (by far) than the entire country, it was difficult for me to get used to pretty much just seeing the same people over and over again. Now, one of the stranger things is seeing a foreigner I don’t know. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been varying degrees of strictness.

At first, the borders were entirely closed and I didn’t see a new foreign face for months. Now there are repatriation flights coming in every few weeks, and they sometimes have a foreigner or two on them. So every now and then there will be a new face, and it won’t be long until we’re introduced one way or another. But it’s strange mainly because it IS strange. Seeing a new face should NOT be a strange thing in ‘normal’ life.

It’s hard to say how many westerners there are in Tonga but I’d guess at no more than 100 now, but it’s probably something more like 50. Of course, there could be a lot more hiding away who don’t hang out at the cafes or bar, but it certainly feels like there is something around 50 or less.

Something I’ve learnt from this is that everyone knows everyone, pretty much. And news in a small island country travels FAST. As well as gossip and rumor too, of course. I’ll meet people and they will tell me they’ve heard about me, they know my name, what I do, or where I live. It freaked me out at first – but I’ve definitely got used to it.

Another difficulty that I find myself struggling with daily is living in constant paradise. Being stuck on an island at the peak of summer with little to no coronavirus restrictions sounds pretty ideal. But being here every day, it’s tough to appreciate it. But I have to remind myself every day how lucky I am to be here and it helps.

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How Am I (STILL) Keeping Busy in Tonga?

I’m one of the most motivated people I know. But even for me, having had to motivate myself for the past year, keeping busy and away from watching Netflix all day has been a struggle.

(Only had one of those days so far, though!)

A big help has been studying. Since late September, I have started studying a Master’s course online. This course should be in China, but since I’m not able to go there, I’m lucky the university allowed me to study online.

This has given me one of the two most important things you need to keep motivated; a structure, and a goal. There’s also been a few days when I’ve been so busy I’ve wanted to have nothing to do. This is something I was wishing away in my first few months here!

I only noticed how much this structure has helped me when it once again went away for the Christmas holidays. At the end of December, I found myself on a 2-month break from university. Bliss for the first few days, and then it started to get tough again.

Now studying, I have less time to be able to work doing various freelance jobs online that have kept me going here and able to survive. So I’ve set a frim agenda to do more of this. And if I ever get too bored, then I have a blackboard full of things to keep me busy. If ever I can’t find the motivation or the energy to think of what I can do, I just turn to the blackboard and it helps to give some structure.

Here’s a sample of what I keep busy with…
  • Practice Ukulele (I got one for my birthday!)
  • Study Chinese and Korean
  • Study Arabic (I started learning a new language!)
  • Work
  • Read
  • Write book (Yes, I’m writing a book on it all!)
  • Run
  • Meditate
  • Yoga
  • Swim

I’ve also been taking part in local events such as cultural events and swimming to other islands (pictured below).

Related: I Have Been To North Korea Almost 30 Times & Counting…Why Do I Keep Going Back?

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1.8km swim from Tongatapu main island to Pangaimotu

Impact of COVID-19 in Tonga

Of course, being so restrictive with your borders means that other industries will suffer. So the tourism industry and the hospitality industry is, of course, doing nowhere near as well as it otherwise would do, as Tonga is a big tourist hub due to the humpback whales that come every year that you can swim with. Nevertheless, the government have done a seemingly good job with providing relief packages. A lot of the cafes and bars at least in the capital city remain fairly packed on busy weekends. Resorts that would otherwise be full of tourists are now full of Tongans.

How much longer can a county keep the virus out? That’s like asking the same question as ‘how much longer will this pandemic go on?’ We just don’t know. But for Tonga and the surrounding countries, I hope that for their own health and safety they manage to keep up the strict measures that have worked well for them so far.

And I, like presumably most other people in the world, hope for the health, safety and mental wellbeing of everyone else out there and that this pandemic will be over soon.

Zoe Stephens
Zoe is a freelance writer from Liverpool, UK. She spends her time travelling between China, where she is based, and North Korea, where she works as a tour guide for Koryo Tours. You can follow her journey and see her content from North Korea on Instagram (@zoediscovers) and YouTube. You can see more about her life stuck on Tonga on Instagram @ifyouwerestrandedonanisland.

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4 COMMENTS

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Zoe, I hope you’re keeping notes for your future novel. It’s almost a real life “Truman Show” you’re living in. I’ve often fantasized about being stranded on a tropical island. I’m sure the Tongans don’t see it that way. Have you talked to locals who have never left the islands and how they feel about it?

    • I’m writing it as I go, actually! It’s interesting – I never thought to ask or talk to the tongans about their views on staying here or going, because most of them have children who go abroad to work and send money home, mainly to Australia or New Zealand. Could be an interesting topic though!

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