How Tonga Is Remaining COVID-19 Free For 8 Months. My First Hand Account

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covid-19 free

How Tonga Is Remaining COVID-19 Free For 8 Months

Tonga is COVID-19 free. I mean, Tonga is a country completely without coronavirus. It currently has no cases of the virus, and it never has. Tonga is, and has remained a country without coronavirus throughout the whole of 2020 (so far).

The coronavirus pandemic began over 8 months ago, and for many countries, it doesn’t seem like “the end” or “normality” is in close sight. Starting in China, it wasn’t long before almost all the countries in the world reported cases. And out of the 193 UN listed countries, 181 countries have reported coronavirus cases. Leaving 12 countries without coronavirus cases reported. 2 of which are presumed to have cases of the virus, but have not released any reports. 

That leaves 10 countries. 10 COVID-19 free countries.

Only 10 Countries Remain Completely Virus Free

8 months on, how did these 10 countries manage to so far defeat a pandemic that has otherwise swept around the globe?

These 10 countries all have 2 big things in common that helped them to, so far, remain countries without coronavirus and stay clear of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  1. They’re all small, pacific island nations.
  2. They all acted quickly, strictly, and efficiently.

Whilst all of these COVID-19 free countries responded in their own ways, their ways of dealing with and preventing coronavirus from entering the country all have similarities.

Let’s take a deeper look into one country’s response. The country I’m currently stuck in.

covid-19 free
White sand beaches empty of tourists since early 2020

My Experience In Tonga – One of the Few COVID-19 Free Countries

Tonga is a small pacific island nation with a population of just over 100,000 people. You can reach Tonga from both New Zealand and Fiji. Annually, it sees a large number of tourists due to the popularity of swimming with whales. (It’s one of two countries in the world you can swim with whales in).

Whale season begins in July, but this year there have been no tourists in Tonga. And they’re not expecting any anytime soon, either.

Let’s see what happened in Tonga over the past few months in 2020.

covid-19 free
Spotting whales in Tonga

February

Tonga requires all travelers entering to have a doctors note of health.

19th March

Fiji declared its first case of coronavirus on the 19th March in the afternoon. Fiji is one of the main entry points to Tonga, so Tonga responded quickly. Already, the streets started to clear and you could see social distancing signs and hand sanitizer around the town.

21st March

Tonga closed its borders completely. No commercial flights in, no commercial flights out.

27th March

A 3-week lockdown commences. A very strict lockdown. There is a ban on sale on alcohol, a curfew from 6 pm to 5 am, and you are only permitted to leave your residence for essential shopping. To ensure this practice was kept in place, the government installed police at checkpoints between each village. The police stopped every vehicle. They questioned each person and their reason for passing. They recorded these details down. The government put in a social distancing measure, but nobody was wearing masks.

During this time, the capital city Nuku’alofa, home to 70% of Tonga’s entire population, was completely empty. All restaurants, bars, and cafes were closed. Most shops and all markets were also closed. Only a few larger shops remained open. There were neither cars nor people on the street.

police checkpoint
A police check-point at the entrance to the next village – you are only allowed to pass for essential shopping or if you are going back home.

13th April

In mid-April, the government lifted the lockdown. It had been over 14 days since the last foreigner entered the country and Tonga could now officially declare itself a COVID-19 free country.

Over the next few months, shops, bars, cafes slowly begin to open. And people slowly started to come back out of their houses. Slowly, and very cautiously.

Nothing happened overnight. Many of Tonga’s citizens were still worried and didn’t want to take the risk.

A couple of days later, there was a repatriation flight to Germany. This is one of few repatriation flights that left, including others for US and Japanese citizens.

June

By June, normality had almost resumed in Tonga. Kind of. There are still a few locations with social distancing.

Commercial flights to New Zealand begin again. However, there are strict entry requirements to get into New Zealand. There is one flight once a week – subject to frequent change and cancellation. 

These flights from New Zealand bring in mail and other supplies. Container ships also are permitted to arrive in Tonga. Anything entering Tonga, including any items, luggage etc is subject to sanitation and a 4-day quarantine.

13th July

In mid-July, the first flight repatriating Tongans abroad arrived in Tonga from Fiji. Upon arrival, Tongans were escorted in several different buses with police and military escorts to the hotel in the city center where they would all stay and quarantine for 2 weeks.

The authorities shut the road to this hotel and police guarded the premises 24/7.

It took almost 4 months until Tonga started repatriating its own citizens back.

August

At the beginning of August, the 2nd flight repatriating Tongans abroad arrived, this time from New Zealand. The Queen is still stuck out of Tonga.

Tonga NOW

The once-a-week commercial flights to New Zealand remain, and despite the lockdown finishing over 4 months ago, the curfew remains in place, although it has been lifted to 12 am-5 am.

There are no commercial flights into Tonga, and none expected for many months. There are still thousands of Tongans stuck abroad that the government will first repatriate.

Although normal life has largely resumed, some things still remain. Of course, aside from not being able to leave… You can see slogans and posters dotted around the capital city reminding people to be vigilant about COVID-19, to wash their hands, and many places offer hand sanitizer too. 

sign
“Please Wash Your Hands” sign outside one of the most popular cafes in the country

Is Remaining COVID-19 Free a Realistic Goal?

Whilst being a COVID-19 free country is quite the achievement, it comes at a price. And at what price ultimately, it’s not yet clear. But the reality is that families and friends remain separated. The government has repatriated only just over 200 Tongans so far, leaving thousands still abroad. The tourism industry has taken a huge blow. Or rather, has been completely shattered. Like other countries, the hospitality industry is suffering. Bars, cafes, and restaurants once full for bookings now struggle to keep open.

Tonga is proud to be a country without coronavirus. Who wouldn’t be? But I can’t help thinking it is merely postponing the inevitable. Perhaps earlier on in the year, it looked like containing the virus and getting rid of it within a few weeks seemed like it could be possible. But it seems like COVID-19 is here to stay. At least for the next few months, years, or until scientists create a vaccine.

How long can a country function without one of its biggest industries? And are the sacrifices that have to be made worth it? In the end, unless the government keep up these strict measures in the long-term, it is only a matter of time before this once COVID-19 free country gets its first case. After all, it is only due to these strict measures put in place that the country remained coronavirus free. And when this happens, it could find itself behind the rest of the world and unprepared.

These are questions that every country around the world is dealing with. At what cost are we making these sacrifices, which sacrifices should we be making, and how long can we keep making them?

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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