Tonga’s Proud Diaspora Confronts Daunting Challenge of Disaster Response

Whether as seasonal laborers or international athletes, tens of thousands of Tongans — more Tongans than the Tongans actually living in Tonga — have resettled around the globe, a vast diaspora that holds tight to its pride and passion for its faraway South Pacific home.

So when a violent volcanic eruption and tsunami struck Tonga nearly two weeks ago, these overseas Tongans were buffeted too, first by worry for their loved ones’ well-being as the disaster cut communication lines, then by the daunting challenge of delivering assistance.

Connectivity has gradually returned in some parts of the country. Many, if not most, Tongans overseas have been able to reconnect with relatives, hearing stories of mothers grabbing bare-bottomed babies and running for safety as the waves approached, or of a blanket of ash settling on cherished family homes. There is a feeling of immense gratitude that the death toll was somehow limited to three.

But the country faces a long recovery, especially on its hard-hit outer islands, and the Tongan diaspora is contending with the ongoing pandemic, a snarled global supply chain and limited internet access as it tries to help.

A team from New Zealand surveyed waters off Tonga days after the eruption. An undersea fiber-optic cable was severed, and communications are still limited.Credit…Petty Officer Chris Weissenborn/New Zealand Defense Force, via Associated Press

Tongans overseas, who typically have greater earning potential than those within the country itself, have a long history of sending money home. In 2019, remittances to Tonga were worth the equivalent of 37 percent of its gross domestic product, the highest figure of any nation in the world, according to data from the World Bank. Tonga’s G.D.P. per capita was about $4,600 in 2020, less than one-thirteenth that of the United States.

These economic ties have long helped Tongans overseas maintain their relationships with the country and its culture, whether as workers in New Zealand or Australia or as athletes in the upper echelons of professional sports like rugby.

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“Remittance is not just solely about money,” said Andrew Grainger, a researcher in sports culture in the Pacific at Massey University in New Zealand. “There are emotional, psychological, social, cultural aspects to it as well — it’s showing one’s obligation and one’s passion for community, despite the fact that they may be living in another country.”

Some of those ties are now disrupted, as most banks and money-transfer services have been forced offline in Tonga. The country’s global athletes are among those working to raise money and find ways to get it to their homeland.

“Sports stars around the world from Tonga, whether it be in rugby or all the other sports — at heart, they’re still Tongan,” said the Tongan athlete Pita Taufatofua, who first drew the world’s attention as the country’s flag-bearer at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, where he entered the Olympic stadium, chest glistening, wearing a traditional taʻovala skirt.

Pita Taufatofua, center, at the Tokyo Olympics last year. He has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help Tonga’s relief efforts.Credit…Pool photo by Hannah Mckay

“They still grew up climbing coconut trees, they still go to church, no one tells them what to do except their mother,” he added. “They have a strong connection back to their roots, back to their people.”

Throwing their weight behind online fund-raising for the country’s recovery, Mr. Taufatofua and other Tongan athletes, like the international rugby players Hosea Saumaki and Malakai Fekitoa, who both play in Britain, are using their star power to focus the world’s attention on an island country that is seldom in the media spotlight.

Just over 100,000 people live in Tonga itself, with an estimated 150,000 people making up its diaspora.

“We end up in all different corners,” said Mr. Taufatofua, who has competed in both taekwondo and, more improbably, cross-country skiing in the Olympics, becoming the first person since 1924 to participate in three successive Games. “We’re voyagers, right?”

The rugby player Malakai Fekitoa is among the international athletes from Tonga who have drawn attention to the country’s plight.Credit…Bertrand Langlois/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Between them, New Zealand and Australia, where Mr. Taufatofua lives, are home to an estimated 120,000 Tongans. While they have maintained a strong sense of community, the pandemic has made it difficult to gather and give.

Church services have been held on Zoom for so long that, at one Tongan church in Melbourne, Australia, spiders took up residence in the lock on the front door.

“Because of the pandemic and because of the restrictions, we know we can’t get together,” said Mele Malekesi Facci, a Tongan community leader living in Melbourne.

How the Supply Chain Crisis Unfolded

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The pandemic sparked the problem. The highly intricate and interconnected global supply chain is in upheaval. Much of the crisis can be traced to the outbreak of Covid-19, which triggered an economic slowdown, mass layoffs and a halt to production. Here’s what happened next:

A reduction in shipping. With fewer goods being made and fewer people with paychecks to spend at the start of the pandemic, manufacturers and shipping companies assumed that demand would drop sharply. But that proved to be a mistake, as demand for some items would surge.

Demand for protective gear spiked. In early 2020, the entire planet suddenly needed surgical masks and gowns. Most of these goods were made in China. As Chinese factories ramped up production, cargo vessels began delivering gear around the globe.

Then, a shipping container shortage. Shipping containers piled up in many parts of the world after they were emptied. The result was a shortage of containers in the one country that needed them the most: China, where factories would begin pumping out goods in record volumes

Demand for durable goods increased. The pandemic shifted Americans’ spending from eating out and attending events to office furniture, electronics and kitchen appliances – mostly purchased online. The spending was also encouraged by government stimulus programs.

Strained supply chains. Factory goods swiftly overwhelmed U.S. ports. Swelling orders further outstripped the availability of shipping containers, and the cost of shipping a container from Shanghai to Los Angeles skyrocketed tenfold.

Labor shortages. Businesses across the economy, meanwhile, struggled to hire workers, including the truck drivers needed to haul cargo to warehouses. Even as employers resorted to lifting wages, labor shortages persisted, worsening the scarcity of goods.

Component shortages. Shortages of one thing turned into shortages of others. A dearth of computer chips, for example, forced major automakers to slash production, while even delaying the manufacture of medical devices.

A lasting problem. Businesses and consumers reacted to shortages by ordering earlier and extra, especially ahead of the holidays, but that has placed more strain on the system. These issues are a key factor in rising inflation and are likely to last for months — if not longer.

Instead of a major fund-raising event with, say, traditional dancing, Mrs. Facci and other members of the community have turned to virtual solutions like radio events to raise money and awareness about Tonga’s plight.

In the immediate term, people there need cash, clean water and food, to replace contaminated supplies and crops damaged by a coating of ash. Later on, they will need supplies to replace damaged buildings, tractors to till the ashy soil and boats to connect Tonga’s more remote islands with its mainland.

Praying on a hilltop in Mango, one of Tonga’s hardest-hit islands, on the morning after the eruption and tsunami. Credit…Rev. Kisini Toetu’U, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Getting those funds and goods across the Pacific is currently a hugely complicated endeavor. Besides the challenges in transferring money, the pandemic has caused upheaval in the highly intricate and interconnected global supply chain, producing a shortage of shipping containers, as well as space on the boats that carry them.

Auckland, New Zealand, which is home to 60,000 Tongans, has become a center for people to send goods to Tonga. More than 20 shipping containers, many holding drums of water and groceries with messages of love scrawled on their sides, will soon arrive in Tonga, said Jenny Salesa, a member of the New Zealand Parliament who is of Tongan descent.

While most of those goods are direct remittances from New Zealand residents to family members in Tonga, many other people came to the stadium where the effort was being organized simply to send things to anyone who needed them, Ms. Salesa said.

Clearing ash from a building in Nomuka, another island that sustained extensive damage, two days after the eruption.Credit…Malau Media, via Reuters

“In the face of such huge tragedy like this, a twin disaster of a volcanic eruption and a tsunami, Tongans have united, have come together, to send their ‘ofa, their aroha,” she said, using the Tongan and Indigenous New Zealand words for love.

Mr. Taufatofua, the Tongan Olympian, has so far raised more than $750,000 toward a million-dollar goal. He hopes to fund the rebuilding of at least one school, he said.

Donations have rolled in from Tongans and others who care about them. Mr. Taufatofua said he had received messages from across the world, including from the parents of a little boy in Japan who had donated his allowance to send bread to people in the Ha’apai region, where Mr. Taufatofua’s father is from.

“Tongans have such big personalities and hearts that everyone seems to know one,” Mr. Taufatofua said. “The number is small, but the personality and the giving is big.”

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