A 27-year-old British woman who went to Tonga for the weekend at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic is still there 18 months later.
Zoe Stephens was living in China when the coronavirus pandemic took hold, but traveled to Tonga in an effort to avoid the virus.
She intended to stay for a weekend, but now she has been stuck in the country – which is one of the few places that has never experienced COVID-19 – for a year-and-a-half, according to CNN Travel.
“I’m probably one of the few people in the world that has never had to wear a mask before,” Stephens told CNN Travel.
While living on a coronavirus-free island may sound like a dream, Stephens told CNN Travel that it has been difficult to be isolated without friends and family for so long and to be locked out of her home country.
She ended up in Tonga by way of South Korea, where she visited as COVID-19 cases began to rise in China.
Instead of returning to China and facing quarantine laws, Stephens continued to travel. After a stop in Fiji, she arrived in Tonga, where she was informed that Fiji had just seen some of its first cases.
Stephens faced a three-week lockdown soon after she arrived in Tonga, which she called “really, really intense.”
“You could only leave your home once a week to go and get groceries and you had your car registration and name taken down,” she said.
The archipelago declared a state of emergency in March 2020 and has been shut to foreign nationals since, according to Tonga’s Department of State.
For her first six months in Tonga, Stephen remained hopeful that she would return to China, even skipping the opportunity to return home to the UK, according to CNN Travel.
Once she realized China was not in her immediate future, she chose to get comfortable in Tonga.
She told CNN Travel that she’s living in a beach home that belongs to another family who can’t return to Tonga due to travel restrictions. Stephen even started a program to get a master’s degree in international communications online.
But since she only planned for a weekend in Tonga, she had very few belongings with her and even left her glasses behind in China.
Had she known how long she’d be there, “I would have got a job, I would have learned the local language,” she said. “I would have done some volunteer work or something like that.”
The last year-and-a-half has also been difficult personally: her grandmother passed away from COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic, at a point when getting home was out of the question.
Tonga received 24,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines, according to UNICEF, and Stephens has been fully vaccinated against the virus.
She said she hopes to return to the UK in August, but she’s concerned about ever-changing flights.
“I do worry about what will happen if I go back and then everything shuts down again and everyone’s in lockdown, and I’ll think ‘I should have stayed on the island,’ ” she told CNN Travel.