Katharina Cavano l Palladium - Mar 04 2022
From Volcanic Eruption to Pandemic Lockdown: Responding in Tonga

Credit: Australian Defence Force

When Tonga’s Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted in January, the world held its breath, unsure of what the damage would be for the small island nation in the South Pacific. The blast was seen from space and felt as far away as Peru and California, and yet the world waited for days to hear from Tonga’s people, as its undersea internet cables were destroyed by the force of the volcano.

With the majority of the island without power and blanketed in volcanic ash, aid efforts were already complicated to begin with, but COVID-19 concerns (the island nation had recorded only one COVID-19 case since the onset of the pandemic) made response efforts a logistical puzzle.

The volcanic ash, which had to be swept from the airport runway in order for response flights to land, also posed health and safety concerns. “That ash can be quite damaging, it can burn your skin and will eat through just about anything on the ground,” explains Shelley Thomas, Palladium Humanitarian Logistics Deputy Director.

Thomas, a member of the team leading the procurement of aid supplies for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), has thus far supported twelve flights of Defence Force aircraft and two Royal Australian Navy ships with supplies from Australia to Tonga, totalling 152,000 kilos of relief stores.

From Gum Boots to Masks

“We had to address a broad range of needs, and sent everything from hand sanitiser, blankets, water purification tablets, masks, PPE [personal protective equipment], and satellite equipment,” she says. In addition to the ‘usual’ supplies, the team also procured and sent in ash recovery hardware and associated protective PPE, including chainsaws, leaf blowers, air compressors, gloves, boots, and goggles to enable the clean-up efforts.

“On day one, the team drove around Brisbane buying as many large gum boots and shovels as we could!” she describes. “We were thinking creatively about what we thought they would really need to deal with the ash, and to get the airport open.”

But Tonga, which had so far remained untouched by the pandemic, was facing an influx of international responders and the potential of spreading the virus around the largely unprepared island nation.

The Tongan government remained concerned that COVID-19 could be spread by those responding to the disaster, leading them to implement a lockdown, forcing all response supplies to be provided via contactless delivery. Unknown at the time, and unrelated to any aid shipments, it was already too late.

Suddenly, the team was looking at not just providing emergency response supplies for a natural disaster but supplies for responding to the pandemic in a safe way. “The other problem is that Tonga doesn’t have enough testing equipment to confirm cases or know for certain what strain of the virus is circulating,” says Thomas. Without that information, the government is unable to appropriately shape response efforts.

To assist in confirming cases, Brendon Rogers, Palladium’s Vaccine Stores Manager, with less than a day’s notice, flew into Tonga with the Australian Air Force to retrieve test samples and ensure they were handled correctly. “Because the country was in lockdown, there were no commercial alternatives,” Thomas recalls. “Brendon made it all the way to Tonga and back, without ever leaving the plane.” For the swabs to remain viable, maintaining the integrity of the cold-chain was vitally important and there was a limited window to get these to the lab.

Once back in Australia, we rushed the swabs to the University of Melbourne where they were tested, and the results shared with the Tongan government. While Thomas and her team are now focused on procuring pharmaceuticals and large-scale power restoration equipment for the next shipments, she notes how strange the contactless aspect of the work is. “This is a little different, to take urgently needed material into the country and essentially leave it to quarantine for 72 hours and not see through to the conclusion of the complete distribution process, COVID-19 has certainly changed the face of emergency response work.”

Three days after DFAT’s request to support their response in Tonga, the team was also requested to assist with the devastating COVID-19 outbreak in the Solomon Islands and the island of Kiribati in Micronesia. This has included deploying a response team in support of DFAT and the deployment of Australian medical experts to assess the situation and implement innovative strategies to help support the people of both countries.

Meanwhile, the warehouse team in Brisbane is preparing ‘bricks,’ large air force pallets that contain lifesaving medication, oxygen therapy items, and PPE to be distributed into the heavily affected areas of the outer provinces of the Solomon Islands as the crisis unfolds. With experiences in Tonga and mastery of the ‘contactless delivery’ approach, the Humanitarian Logistics team are ready to face whatever may happen next.

Palladium has been providing logistical support for the Australian Government’s humanitarian relief efforts since 1987. For more information, contact info@thepalladiumgroup.com.