Musk Helps Fix Tongan Internet; virus outbreak is growing

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Entrepreneur Elon Musk helps Tonga reconnect to the internet after volcanic eruption and tsunami officials say land in the South Pacific was cut off more than three weeks ago, while repairs to a submarine cable are proving more difficult than first thought.

The tsunami cut the only fiber optic cable connecting Tonga to the rest of the world and most people are without reliable connections.

The eruption of the massive submarine volcano on January 15 and the resulting tsunami killed three people, wiped out several small settlements on outlying islands, and a thick layer of volcanic ash that covered the main island tainted 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 planes delivering critical aid after the volcanic eruption.

With many displaced in the wake 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 the Pacific delegation for the International Red Cross.

“Resources from community health care and primary care facilities, especially in remote locations, is a huge challenge,” she told The Associated Press. “COVID certainly poses a threat to these systems and to vulnerable people who may not have access to the required level of care.”

Many Tongans are now in lockdown and their communication is severely limited by the severed submarine cable.

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

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

SpaceX operates a network of nearly 2,000 low-orbit satellites called Starlink, which provide Internet services to remote places around the world.

Fiji Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum tweeted about the SpaceX work, saying the volcano’s shockwave “disconnected Tonga’s internet connection, adding days of heartbreaking uncertainty to disaster assessments.”

A spokeswoman for Sayed-Khaiyum said on 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 previously expressed interest in Tonga’s plight. Less than a week after the eruption, he asked on Twitter: “Can people from Tonga let us know if it’s important for SpaceX to ship Starlink terminals?”

New Zealand politician Dr. Shane Reti wrote to Musk asking him to help him establish a Starlink connection. After the reports from Fiji came out, Reti tweeted: “Very pleased. Elon Musk provides satellite to Tonga.”

Meanwhile, Samiuela Fonua, the chairman of Tonga Cable Ltd., the state-owned company that owns the critical submarine cable, told AP that repairs to the cable may not be completed until late next week.

Fonua said the good news was that the crew of 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 that his company didn’t have enough cable onboard the ship to replace a mangled section more than 80 kilometers (50 miles) away.

Fonua said there was additional cable onboard the Reliance that was owned by other companies, and Tonga Cable hoped to negotiate agreements with those companies to use it.

A UN team has provided small satellites and other telecommunications support to improve 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 sent 5,000 PCR tests to help with the outbreak.

The outbreak started after two Tongan dock workers tested positive for the virus last week. Despite efforts to stop the virus from spreading, the number of cases has increased and Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni said on Wednesday the number of infections has more than doubled overnight, with 19 new cases.

That brings the total to 35 cases in the country from 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 involved people going out to drink kava, a popular intoxicating drink made from the root of a local plant, with a friend who was infected.

“It is currently banned for kava clubs,” Piukala reminds Tongans, according to the online news portal Matangi Tonga.

With communications limited due to the severed submarine cable, Sovaleni radioed the Tongans on Wednesday to update them on the outbreak.

Tonga was doing well with its vaccinations before the current outbreak, but now that the virus has reached the country, thousands are coming for injections, according to the health ministry.

On Monday, 2,185 people received booster shots, 140 people received their first dose and 281 received second doses, Matangi Tonga reported.

Overall, 97% of the eligible population aged 12 years and older received at least one dose and 88% received a second. According to the Ministry of Health, at least 67% of the total population of Tonga is now fully vaccinated.

Rising reported from Bangkok.

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