The island nation of Tonga is still dealing with the aftermath from a volcanic eruption and tsunami that devastated the country in January. Described as a ‘once in a millennium event,’ experts estimate that 85% of population has been directly impacted by the natural disasters which caused approximately $90 million in damages.
While initial aid focused on basic needs—food, clean water, temporary shelter and reestablishing communications—donations are still desperately needed. Northern California organizations continue to mobilize, answering Tonga’s call from across the globe.
Ngatuvai “Fifi” Vailea is acutely aware of the long-term challenges now facing the country and its people. Her extended family live on the islands of Tonga Tapu and Eua, and she is a dual citizen and regular visitor to Tonga. She expressed her appreciation for her employer’s recent donation to the island nation.
“I honestly have no words to explain how grateful and proud I feel from learning about this donation,” said Vailea, who works as a security consultant at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland. “Both of my parents moved from Tonga to America in the early 80s but still flew our family back to visit. I know how important the humanitarian supplies will be and I am just so thankful.”
Sutter Health, a not-for-profit health network that includes the medical center, recently donated 13 pallets of medical supplies, totaling $159,679, to ‘Anamatangi Polynesian Voices. APV is a grassroots nonprofit that supports the Pacific Islander community living in the Bay Area. It is currently partnering with community organizations, corporations, congregations and nonprofits to collect enough supplies to fill a Boeing 787 destined for Tonga. Products donated by Sutter included: hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and thermometers.
“I’m very touched,” says Lucy Otuhouma, another Sutter Health employee who has been with the organization for 22 years. “Tongans are very religious, and my family initially thought it was the end of the world. Today they have pieces of normal life back, but COVID infection rates are now climbing.” Until recently Tonga was one of the few places in the world that hadn’t experienced community spread of the virus. “The hospitals there don’t have capacity if there’s a serious outbreak. Sanitation and hygiene supplies are a huge priority and this donation is going to make a big difference.”
Both women said that working in healthcare has opened their eyes to how under-resourced Tonga is in the areas of medical care and illness prevention. “At home and abroad, the pandemic has shown that those with fewer resources are more susceptible to disease – wherever people struggle you will see health impacts,” said Bindi Gandhi, director of community health for Sutter in the Bay Area. Gandhi was instrumental in coordinating the recent donation of supplies, having previously worked with APV to host several community COVID vaccination events, staffed by Sutter employees.
This familiarity not only helped position Sutter to support relief efforts in Tonga today, employees say it felt like an embrace. “I know the islands aren’t that big or well known, so to see that people here care, it warms my heart,” said Vailea.
Otuhouma agrees, saying that Sutter’s contributions remind her of the spirit of the Tongan people: “Everyone looks out for each other, we’re all part of a big family, it’s our philosophy of Ta-kanga ‘emau fohe – our oars are moving in unison.”