Published on The Trade Post

Public-private collaboration facilitates the import of vaccines in Tonga

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High view of a small pool and a pier with a cruise ship at low tide, Tonga High view of a small pool and a pier with a cruise ship at low tide, Tonga

The Kingdom of Tonga, following a series of economic shocks, is now in economic recovery. In 2020, the category 4 Tropical Cyclone Harold caused damages and losses to more than 12 percent to Tonga’s total Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This was followed by the eruption of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano – and subsequent tsunami waves – which caused extensive damage, impacting 85 percent of the population. Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic damaged many of Tonga’s key industries, hindering its response to these natural disasters.

The remoteness of Tonga provided some initial protection from the global COVID-19 pandemic. For Tonga, continued protection for its population of over 105,000 has been paramount. Rolling out its vaccination program across the 169 islands that make up the Kingdom required careful coordination , particularly in face of aid efforts linked to these natural disasters which took place during the pandemic.

The World Bank Group’s earlier resilience projects and recent support to Tonga’s emergency response and recovery efforts – including a development policy loan of over US$18M – have been vital in the country’s ability to withstand these disasters and respond swiftly.

This also included support to mitigate pandemic-related trade risks and to align the country’s trade practices with the World Trade Organization Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA).

The WTO agreement contains provisions for expediting the movement, release, and clearance of goods. It also sets out measures for effective cooperation between customs and other border agencies and appropriate authorities on trade facilitation and customs compliance issues. The urgency of the crisis prompted many countries, like Tonga, to accelerate implementation of these recommendations and support more efficient cross border trade.

Tonga’s focus on trade facilitation—the simplification, modernization and harmonization of export and import processes — helped maintain trade flows during the pandemic  and has been crucial in providing access to essential food and medical items, including vaccines for its citizens.

A small multi-agency team was established to lead the import of vaccines, comprised of government – Ministries of Trade, Customs, Health, Quarantine (Plant & Animal), Transport, and border organizations – port, airport, air cargo operators, customs brokers, freight forwarders. A structured schedule was developed for regular working group meetings with clear specific outcomes for each activity.

Early on, the team undertook a physical walk-through to observe all agency processes – from the end-to-end approval, import clearance and logistics processes. The exercise identified points of connection for improved coordination and provided a real understanding of the logistics procedures to support the timely delivery of vaccines.

The team then rolled out findings and proposed implementable solutions across the network of trade agencies. Briefing meetings were held with border organizations to highlight the new and expedited clearance process and coordinate across agencies.

Multiple consultations were held between the government the private sector to share information and ensure a solid understanding of the expedited process and requirements. Upon request by the private sector, the government developed a series of guidelines and factsheets to help navigate the new system.

The ‘cheat sheets’ covered the import of critical vaccines, medicines, and medical products in response to COVID-19 preparedness, critical humanitarian and relief shipments and in strengthening the resilience of Tonga’s national and international pharmaceutical supply chain.

This enabled quick mobilization for the expedited clearance of the first consignment of 20,000 COVID-19 vaccines in only three hours. As at June 2022, over 261,000 vaccine doses have been administered in Tonga.

This support from the World Bank Group represents an important step in helping Tonga to build a strong foundation for a robust recovery from the impacts of COVID-19.  Further trade facilitation measures can also play a key role in boosting longer term resilience to public health, climate-related emergencies, and humanitarian relief shipments.

Financial support for this World Bank Group initiative was provided by the Trade Facilitation Support Program (TFSP). The TFSP is funded by nine donor partners: Australia, Canada, the European Commission, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United States, and the United Kingdom.


Alina Monica Antoci

Senior Private Sector Specialist

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