'Catastrophic' - health leader on Tongan Covid case

By Will Trafford

Above: Nukualofa, Tonga Image / Arne Müseler

"Heart-breaking" and potentially "catastrophic" is how University of Otago immunologist Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu describes news of a Kiwi arriving with Covid-19 in Tonga.

Just 33 per cent of the nation’s 105,000 people have been fully vaccinated, so while she is calling on the community to urgently get jabbed, Sika-Paotonu says officials need to address the case with the highest safety protocols.

"If this case is not contained, the potential consequences for the Tongan nation will be catastrophic."

The immunologist cautions that even if the virus is kept at bay, New Zealand is evidence that will not always be the case.

"We’re experiencing first-hand how quickly and easily Delta can spread and infect – our current outbreak originated with a single case."

"[Now] we’re continuing to see triple digits daily, as a result of Delta transmission," she said.

Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu, Immunologist, Associate Dean (Pacific), Head of University of Otago

Sika-Paotonu says Pacifika and Māori communities suffer disproportionate effects from Covid-19. In Aotearoa more than half of Covid-19 cases in the last week have been within whānau Māori and Pacifika; those groups should have been prioritised from the start, she says.

"It was known from the outset Māori and Pacific communities were highly vulnerable to being disproportionately affected by Covid-19, and would require prioritisation to stay protected."

The Associate Dean (Pacific) at Otago says given the case was exported from Christchurch, health officials are not on top of the virus in Te Waipounamu.

"This development indicates more Covid-19 spread in the Christchurch community than is being reflected by the Covid-19 case numbers," she said.

Sika-Paotonu reiterated calls from Māori and Pacifika health leaders to have a specific vaccination target rate for Māori and Pacifika in Aotearoa, despite the government rejecting the idea while announcing a roadmap out of Covid-19 lockdown last week.

 Pangaimotu Island, Tonga Author / Uhooep

The government instead opted for a $120 million fund to accelerate Māori vaccination rates.

"Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, DHBs will need to ensure at least 90 – 95% full vaccinations for Pacific peoples and Māori - to ensure no one is left behind," she said.

Dr Sika-Paotonu reiterates Aotearoa’s outbreak is a cautionary tale for Tonga.

"We cannot let the same happen in Tonga. Everyone, please get vaccinated, please get tested, please follow the alert level rules, and importantly, help others around you to do the same," she said.