Musk helps restore Internet in Tonga; growing virus epidemic | Health

By NICK PERRY and DAVID RISING – Associated Press

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Entrepreneur Elon Musk is helping to reconnect Tonga to the internet after a volcanic eruption and tsunami cut off the nation from the South Pacific more than three weeks ago, officials say, while repairs to an undersea 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 are left without reliable connections.

Three people were confirmed killed in the January 15 eruption of the massive undersea volcano and resulting tsunami, and several small settlements in the outer islands were wiped out and a thick layer of volcanic ash that covered the main island has contaminated much of the drinking water.

Tonga had avoided the COVID-19 pandemic for more than two years, but is now in the midst of an outbreak with new infections growing rapidly after the virus was apparently introduced by foreign military crews aboard ships. and aircraft providing critical aid after the volcano eruption.

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With many people displaced by the eruption, an already fragile health system and the isolation of the islands, the outbreak is of particular concern, said Katie Greenwood, head of delegation in the Pacific for the International Red Cross. .

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

Many Tongans are now stranded with their communications severely restricted due to the severed undersea cable.

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

A senior official from neighboring Fiji tweeted that a team from Musk’s SpaceX company was in Fiji to establish a station that would help reconnect Tonga via SpaceX satellites.

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

Fiji Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum tweeted about SpaceX’s work, saying the volcano’s shock wave had ‘shattered Tonga’s internet connection, adding days of heartbreaking uncertainty to disaster assessments’ .

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

Musk had previously expressed interest in the fate of Tonga. Less than a week after the eruption, he asked on Twitter, “Could Tonga let us know if it is important for SpaceX to send via Starlink terminals?

New Zealand politician Dr Shane Reti has written to Musk asking for his help in providing a Starlink connection. After the Fiji reports came out, Reti tweeted: “Very happy. Elon Musk provides a satellite to Tonga.

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

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

Fonua said there was extra cable on board the Reliance that belonged to other companies, and Tonga Cable hoped to make deals with those companies to use it.

A UN team provided small satellites and other telecommunications carriers to boost connectivity and communications, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said, and more equipment was on the way.

Dujarric said UNICEF had sent 15,000 rapid test kits and the World Health Organization was sending 5,000 PCR tests to help fight the outbreak.

The outbreak began after two Tongan dockworkers tested positive for the virus last week. Despite efforts to stop the spread of the virus, the number of cases has risen and Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni said Wednesday that infections had more than doubled overnight, with 19 new cases.

This brings the total to 35 total cases in the country of 105,000 – 34 in the current outbreak and one 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 intoxicating drink made from the root of a local plant, with an infected friend.

“Kava clubs are banned from operating at this time,” Piukala reminded Tongans, according to online news portal Matangi Tonga.

With communications restricted due to the severed submarine cable, Sovaleni spoke to Tongans by radio on Wednesday to inform them of the outbreak.

Tonga was doing well with their vaccinations before the current outbreak, but now that the virus has reached the country, thousands of people have been vaccinated, according to the Ministry of Health.

On Monday, 2,185 people received boosters, 140 people received their first doses 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 immunized, according to the Department of Health.

Rising reported from Bangkok.

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