Remote Tokelau atoll prepares for a COVID-19 pandemic

Atafu, the smallest of the three atolls that make up the Tokelaus

Tokelau’s geographic isolation is perhaps one of the key reasons why it is still COVID-free, but Tokelau’s remoteness also poses a critical challenge in trying to enhance its systems and capacities to prepare and respond to the pandemic.

It’s main gateway is its nearest neighbour, Samoa, which is about 505 kilometres away, or a whole day’s boat ride from Fakaofo, nearest of the three atolls to Samoa; the other two being Nukunonu and Atafu. Its population of about 1,467 people is entirely dependent on shipping for transportation of people and goods, as there are no flights to and from the atolls.

The risk of “importing” the disease into the country remains elevated, especially as the global numbers of cases continue to rise. So a crucial consideration for the Government of Tokelau’s Preparedness and Response Plan for COVID-19 was ensuring an enabling quarantine and isolation capacity on the three atolls.

Not being able to prevent the import of COVID-19, or to contain its spread once it has entered the country, would have dire health, social and economic consequences for Tokelau. It is why the Government actively prepared ahead of time by putting in place measures to ensure that in the event it does, it is ready for it.

“This is where we’re at with our preparations by the end of July,” said Aukusitino Vitale, General Manager National and Chair of Tokelau’s COVID-19 Advisory Team, referencing a recent video report, https://bit.ly/2Zuz7dg, on the state of Tokelau’s preparations.

“Admittedly, we were overly optimistic with our initial response that the effects of the pandemic would not be for this long. We are far from fully implementing our Preventive & Preparedness Plan. Our overall aim is to keep Tokelau COVID-19 free, and in the unfortunate event that there may be a slight rip in our preventative measures, that we are as prepared as a small community could ever be to cope with any suspected or confirmed cases.” 

Social distancing on a barge, crucial to livelihood in the Tokelaus.

In March this year, the Government of Tokelau reallocated its national budget and commenced with upgrading and repurposing of existing buildings for quarantine and isolation. Repurposed facilities included school buildings and community centres for the women and were fully furnished with the necessary equipment and furniture such as beds, phones, radios and other essentials. These assisted with two repatriation sailings of Tokelauans from Samoa in April and more recently in July.

Subsequent assistance from New Zealand and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) enabled Tokelau to progress much of its preparations, including the construction of purpose built quarantine centres. The focus is now on completing these newly built quarantine centres, thereby freeing up school buildings, allowing the children to return to their classrooms and some semblance of normalcy, and the women to use their centres again for initiatives supporting the entire community.

UNDP’s COVID-19 Response Fund also contributed to the creation of a COVID-19 multimedia awareness campaign in Tokelau, the production and distribution of information and educational communication materials on COVID-19 preparedness, response and prevention, hygiene and dignity kits, and capacity building and training of health care workers and relevant operation staff at the quarantine centres.

Another separate UNDP project, known as Strengthening COVID-19 Preparedness, Response, and Recovery in the Cook Islands, Niue, Samoa and Tokelau, is funding the implementation of a fully costed Socio-Economic Impact Assessment for Tokelau.

The total UNDP support for these projects is worth about USD$230,000.

One of the quarantine facilities in place.

“UNDP’s maxims of leaving no one behind and building back better are incorporated into this assistance to Tokelau. We are privileged to work with the Government and people of Tokelau in its preventative and response measures to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said UNDP Resident Representative, Jorn Sorensen.

In early March 2020, the General Fono of Tokelau, representing the legislative power, endorsed the Tokelau Prevention, Preparedness and Response Plan for COVID-19 2020. Immediately after, a joint team of Tokelau Health Officials and World Health Organization consultants visited all three atolls to assess the current situation and capacity in the respective villages to respond to COVID-19, and identify needs that must be addressed to ensure that Tokelau is prepared to respond if there is a suspected or confirmed case. The joint team provided a summary of the visit with proposed areas for improvement including repurposing of existing infrastructure facilities in all three villages to enable local capacity to respond to COVID-19.

After COVID-19 pandemic, these facilities could be turned into tourist or visitor accommodations and enhance Tokelau’s capacity to generate tourism and business-related revenues.

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