- Tokelau, a New Zealand territory, can only be reached by boat via Samoa.
- Geographical isolation and entry regulations had helped people avoid COVID-19.
- It is the last place in the Pacific to report a case.
Tokelau has registered its first-ever COVID-19 infection, two years, two months and nine days after the World Health Organization announced the start of the pandemic.
As of December 20, the non-self-governing territory of New Zealand recorded five cases, marking an abrupt end to avoiding a positive case.
It is the last place in the Pacific to report its first infection and the second to last place in the world, with Turkmenistan, a landlocked country of more than six million people in Central Asia, still claiming to be COVID-free.
Tokelau’s Ulu o Tokelau – or head of government – Siopili Perez said the cases were detected by rapid antigen tests (RATs) during quarantine in Atafu, the territory’s northernmost atoll.
On Tokelau’s three atolls — a ring-shaped island of coral — populations of about 1,500 have reported cases due to their geographic isolation, high vaccination rates and the need for a negative RAT.
Around 96 per cent of the eligible population is vaccinated, with New Zealand being urged to speed up its second shipment of boosters after their first cases.
Crates of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine being unloaded onto HMNZS Wellington sailing to Tokelau and the North Cook Islands in July 2021. Source: Getty / Hannah Peters
New Zealand’s foreign minister has backed the motion, announcing a new shipment of medical supplies, booster vaccines, RATs, personal protective equipment (PPE) and oral antivirals due to arrive by December 30.
The COVID-19 cases came from a group arriving by boat from another atoll, Fakaofo, with passengers from Apia in Samoa.
Its nearest neighbor, Samoa, is about 500 km or 24 hours away by boat, which is the only way to travel to the area.
With no established tourism industry, most visitors in and out of the area are Tokelaun or Tokelaun descendants, who come from New Zealand, Australia and Hawaii.
Current restrictions in the area require all visitors to be fully vaccinated and return a negative RAT within 24 hours of boarding the ship bound for Tokelau. The territory has since imposed a travel ban between the atolls to curb the possible spread of the virus.
It’s one of many Pacific islands facing its first cases this year. Kiribati, Samoa, Palau and the Solomon Islands all experienced outbreaks in January.
In St. Helena, a British territory 1,950 kilometers southwest of Africa, the population of about 4,500 had similarly formulated COVID-19 with strict quarantine restrictions as of August 8 this year.
While the first recorded cases were in January 2022 and in quarantine, it didn’t spread to the community until August 8, 2022, when St. Helena lifted its COVID-19 entry requirements.
After the area scrapped quarantine, testing and mask-wearing requirements, 506 positive cases were recorded in six weeks, infecting 11.5 percent of the population.