Johannesburg (AFP) – At this very moment there is a vast world without Corona VirusPeople can mingle without masks and watch an epidemic unfold from thousands of miles away.
This world is Antarctica, the only continent free of COVID-19. Now, with nearly 1,000 scientists and others who spent the winter on the ice seeing the sun for the first time in weeks or months, there is a global effort that wants to make sure incoming fellows don’t bring the virus with them.
From Rothera Research Station in the United Kingdom off the Antarctic Peninsula that winds toward the tip of South America, field guide Rob Taylor described what looks like our “safe little bubble”.
In the pre-Coronavirus days, long-term isolation, self-reliance and psychological stress were the norm for Antarctic teams while the rest of the world saw their lives as amazingly extreme.
How times have changed.
“In general, the freedoms afforded us are more comprehensive than those in the UK at the height of the lockdown,” said Taylor, who arrived in October and missed the pandemic entirely. “We can ski, socialize naturally, run and use the gym, all within reason.”
Like teams across Antarctica, including in Antarctica, Taylor and his 26 colleagues have to be adept at all kinds of tasks in a remote community environment with little room for error. He said they take turns cooking, making weather observations and “doing a lot of sewing.”
Good internet connections mean they have closely monitored the spread of the epidemic around the rest of the planet. Until this year, conversations with new colleagues have focused on preparing the newcomers. Now the advice goes both ways.
“I’m sure there’s a lot they can tell us that will help us adapt to the new way of things,” said Taylor. “We haven’t had any social distancing training yet!”
At Scott’s base in New Zealand, the mini-golf tours and filmmaking competition with other Antarctic bases were highlights of the Southern Hemisphere winter, which ended for Scott’s team when they spotted the sun last Friday. It has been away since April.
“I think there’s a little bit of a disconnect,” said Rory O’Connor, the team’s doctor and winter captain, of viewing the epidemic from afar. “You admit it mentally, but I don’t think we took into account the emotional turmoil it caused.”
His family in the UK still does not trade with him. “They can’t understand why I came here,” he joked. “The dark months. Stuck inside with a small group of people. Where’s the joy in that?”
O’Connor said they will be able to test for the virus once colleagues start arriving as soon as Monday, weeks later due to a massive storm that caused snowfall at a height of 20 feet (6 meters). He said any viral case would trigger a “red level response”, with activities stripped to provide heating, water, energy and food.
While COVID-19 has upset some diplomatic relations, it is the 30 countries that make it up Board of Directors of National Antarctic Programs She teamed early to keep the virus away. Officials cite a unique teamwork between the United States, China, Russia and others who may engage in diplomatic sniping operations elsewhere.
As the fearful world was shutting down in March, Antarctic programs agreed the pandemic could become a major disaster. With the world’s strongest winds and coldest temperatures, a continent roughly the size of the United States and Mexico poses a risk to workers at 40 bases throughout the year.
According to a COMNAP document seen by the Associated Press, “The new highly contagious virus with high mortality and morbidity rates in the harsh and militant environment of Antarctica with limited complexity in medical care and public health responses is a major risk with potentially catastrophic consequences.”
She said that since Antarctica can only be reached through a small number of air entrances or via ships, “the attempt to prevent the virus from reaching the continent must be done immediately.”
COMNAP warned that there is no contact with tourists. “Cruise ships should not be launched.” For Antarctic teams located in close proximity to one another, “reciprocal visits and social events between stations / facilities must be stopped.”
Antarctic workers have long been trained in hand washing and “sneeze” etiquette, but COMNAP backtracked on that reminder, adding, “Don’t touch your face.”
In those rapid weeks of recent flights, the United States “happily” beefed up medical and other supplies for the winter and beyond, said Stephanie Short, head of logistics for the US Antarctic Program.
“We have re-planned a full research season in a matter of weeks, in the face of the highest level of uncertainty I have seen in my 25-year government career,” she said.
Soon the Antarctic bases slipped into months of isolation known as winter. Now, with a glimmer of spring, the next big test begins.
Everyone is sending fewer people to the ice in the summer, said Michelle Finmore, COMNAP Executive Secretary.
In Christchurch, New Zealand, Operation Deep Freeze is preparing to transport about 120 people to the largest US terminal, McMurdo. To reduce contact between Antarctic workers and the flight crew, the aircraft has a separate toilet installed on a pallet.
The bubble of Americans began before leaving the United States in early August and continued until they reached ice. They have been quarantined in hotel rooms after a long quarantine of New Zealand for 14 days. Bad weather delayed their departure for weeks. Now scheduled for Monday.
“We’re trying to do a really good job of keeping them spirits,” said Anthony Germain, the lead contact for the US Antarctic Program there.
The United States sends a third of its regular summer crew. Alexandra Isern, chair of Antarctic Sciences for the US program with the National Science Foundation, said research will be affected, although investing in robots and devices that can transfer data from the field will be of great help.
She said the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 virus cause some sadness. “In some cases, we will have to provide snow digging tools to make sure we can still find them.”
Sarah Williamson, chief executive of Antarctica, New Zealand, said New Zealand, like other countries, will prioritize long-term data sets, some of which began in the 1950s, that measure climate, ozone levels, seismic activity and more. She said she was sending 100 people to the ice instead of 350.
Nish Devanontan, director of Antarctic Support for South Africa, said some programs are delaying Antarctic operations until next year or until 2022.
He said, “I think the biggest concern for every country is that the country is involved in bringing the virus.” “Everyone is protected from that.”
The reserves extend to the gateway cities – Cape Town, Christchurch, Hobart in Australia, Punta Arenas in Chile and Ushuaia in Argentina. Each has quarantine and testing protocols for workers onboard aircraft or ships heading south.
Devanonthan said Antarctica always faces its challenges, but when it comes to COVID-19 and the international community as a whole, “I’d say this is high on the list.”
A few weeks ago at McMurdo Station, workers conducted an exercise to simulate what the rest of the world knows well: wearing masks and social distancing. “It would be difficult not to run and hug friends”, said Erin Heard, the station manager, once they arrived.
He and the others will begin wearing masks two days before the newcomers arrive, he said, “to help us gain muscle memory.” As for the masks, the team looted McMurdo’s handicraft room, outfitted with fabric, and found designs online.
With the arrival of the colleagues, Heard will leave Antarctica. He might have once planned to melt the ice on the beach. Now he is weighing the new normal. “Should I ask a friend to pick me up?” He said, imagining leaving the plane, “I don’t know if you’re comfortable doing that.”
“It would be very strange, frankly, to come from what looked like another planet.”