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By Lydia Lewis, RNZ Pacific journalist

A family has been under house arrest in Tokelau for almost a year after they refused to get vaccinated against covid-19.

The tunoa — house arrest — was imposed on the family of four by the Taupulega (council) on Nukunonu, one of the three atolls that make up Tokelau.

The New Zealand dependency with a population of about 1500 has had no cases of covid-19 since the global pandemic began in early 2020, according to the World Health Organisation.

However, there are strict protocols in place to prevent the spread of the virus.

The general manager for the office of the council of Nukunonu, Asi Pasilio, explained to RNZ Pacific why the council of 36 heads of extended families who serve the atoll’s community, decided to impose tunoa in August 2021.

Culturally complex
“This is a village rule, this is the decision of the local council which runs the island and the community. We have the laws of Tokelau but we also have the local council which has the authority over their village.”

Pasilio said there were no jails in Tokelau, but when there is a serious offence the council can just ask people to stay at home. Tunoa takes the place of jail.

She said it was a culturally complex issue.

“It will take someone to come here and live our life here, to understand what we mean by house arrest and council authority and communal living.

“Yes, of course, you make your own decisions here, but doing things in a communal manner is very common.”

Family claims they have been left voiceless
In a video posted on social media on July 3, the father, Mahelino Patelesio, said he has felt silenced.

He said he was a member of the council before the tunoa was imposed.

“Before we were placed under house arrest, I explained my stance and I wasn’t allowed to speak at that particular meeting, I actually went there to resign. I wasn’t allowed to do that so I was voiceless.

“From August 3 [2021] three of us adults above 16 years old were placed under house arrest, our daughter was placed under house arrest with us about four months later, towards Christmas,” Patelesio said.

RNZ Pacific has also contacted the family directly but has not received a response.

Asi Pasilio said that while the family is in tunoa they are being supported by the community.

“Their house is right beside the sea so they can go for a swim, they can move around their area but not outside their home boundary.

“They have family members who do their shopping for them.”

Pasilio said the family has been told they have another opportunity to get vaccinated this week following the arrival of more doses.

She said the family had not informed the council of their decision as of Tuesday but if they do choose to get a jab, the tunoa will be lifted.

If they do not, the council will meet again to review the situation.

Matter up to Tokelau, says NZ
New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the former Administrator Ross Ardern had no say in the implementation of tunoa, and that mandatory vaccination was a decision taken by Tokelau’s village leaders.

“Home-isolation has been authorised under the Tokelau customary practice of tunoa, a practice over which Aotearoa New Zealand has no direct authority,” its statement said.

“Aotearoa New Zealand officials have engaged extensively with Tokelau’s leaders to encourage them to strike a balance between the rights of the majority to remain safe from covid-19 in their villages and the rights of the individual.”

“Some 99 percent of Tokelau’s eligible population 12 and over is fully vaccinated (two doses of Pfizer for 12 to 17-year-olds, and three doses for those 18 and over).

“Both doses of paediatric vaccines have been completed, with 99 percent uptake. Boosters for 18+ were successfully administered in Q1 2022 with 99 percent uptake,” MFAT said.

Asi Pasilio said of the three atolls, Fakaofo is fully vaccinated, Atafu has had less than 10 unvaccinated people, and on Nukunonu just the family of four is unvaccinated.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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