Antarctica is still free of COVID-19. Can it stay that way?


Johannesburg (AP) – At this moment a vast world exists that is free of coronaviruses, where people can roam without masks and watch epidemics from thousands of miles away.

The world is Antarctica, the only continent without COVID-19. Now, with about 1,000 scientists and others who live in winter on ice looking at the sun for the first time in weeks or months, a global effort seeks to ensure that incoming co-workers do not bring the virus with them.

From the Antarctic Peninsula to the UK’s Rothra Research Station that leads to the tip of South America, field guide Rob Taylor described what it is like in “our safe little bubble”.

In pre-coronavirus days, long-term isolation, self-sufficiency and psychological stress were the norm for Antarctic teams, while the rest of the world saw their lives as fascinatingly extreme.

How many times has it changed.

“In general, the freedoms given to us are more widespread than those in the UK at the height of the lockdown,” said Taylor, who arrived in October and has completely missed the epidemic. “We can ski, socialize in general, run, use the gym, for all reason.”

Like the teams in Antarctica, at the South Pole, Taylor and his 26 colleagues must be skilled in all kinds of tasks in a remote, communal environment with little room for error. He said cooking, observing the weather and “doing a lot of sewing”, he said.

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A good internet connection means that they have been watched closely as the epidemic orbited the rest of the planet. Until this year, conversations with visiting colleagues focused on preparing new ones. Now the advice goes either way.

“I’m sure there’s a lot they can tell us that will help us adapt to the new way of things,” Taylor said. “We haven’t yet practiced at social distance!”

In Scott Base, New Zealand, a filmmaking competition with rounds of mini-golf and other Antarctic targets is the highlight of the Southern Hemisphere winter, which ended for the Scott team when they saw the sun last Friday. It was swept away by April.

“I think there has been a slight demarcation,” said Rory O’Connor, the doctor and team’s winter leader. “You accept it mentally, but I do not think we have fully factored into the emotional turmoil.

His family will still not do business with him in the UK. “They can’t understand why I came here,” he joked. “Month of darkness”. Stuck inside with a small group of people. Where is the happiness in it? ”

O’Connor said they will be able to test for the virus once peers begin arriving as early as Monday, week-end as a massive storm dumps a 20-ft (6-m) snowdrift. A case of any virus would spark a “red response level”, he said, with activities left to provide heating, water, electricity and food.

While COVID-19 has severed some diplomatic ties, the 30 countries that make up the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs prepared early to keep the virus out. Officials cited unique teamwork among the United States, China, Russia, and others who might engage in diplomatic sniping elsewhere.

As a fearful world was closing in March, Antarctic events agreed that the epidemic could become a major disaster. With the world’s fastest winds and coldest temperatures, the continent of the United States and Mexico is already dangerous for nearly 40-year-old workers.

According to a COMNAP document viewed by the Associated Press, “An extremely contagious novel virus in Antarctica’s extreme and difficult environment with limited sophistication of medical care and public health responses is at high risk with potentially devastating consequences.”

Since Antarctica can only be accessed through certain air gates or ships, “attempts to prevent the virus from reaching the continent must be made by IMMEDIATELY,” it said.

No further contact with tourists, COMNAP warned, “No cruise ship should land.” And for Antarctic teams located near each other, “mutual visits and social events between stations and facilities must be stopped.”

Antarctic workers have long been trained in hand washing and “sneeze etiquette”, but COMNAP slipped into that reminder, saying, “Don’t touch your face.”

In the hasty weeks of final flights, the US “thankfully” extended medical and other supplies for the winter and beyond, said Stephanie Short, head of logistics for the US Antarctic program.

“We have re-planned an entire research session in weeks, the most uncertainty I have faced in my 25-year government career,” he said.

Antarctic targets are soon known as winters. Now, with the glow of spring, the next big test has begun.

COMNAP executive secretary Michelle Finmore said everyone is sending fewer people to the snow for the summer.

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In the Gateway city of Christchurch, New Zealand, Operation Deep Freeze is preparing to airlift about 120 people to McMurdo, the largest US station. To limit contact between Antarctic workers and the flight crew, the aircraft has a separate toilet facility, mounted on a pallet.

The bubble of Americans began before leaving the US in early August and continued until it reached the ice. They have been isolated from hotel rooms beyond New Zealand’s 14-day quarantine. Bad weather delayed his departure. It is now planned for Monday.

“We are trying to do a good job keeping their spirits in mind,” said Anthony Jarman, the chief advocate for the Antarctic program of America.

The US is sending a third of its general summer staff. The research will be affected, though investment in robotics and instrumentation that can disseminate data from the field, said Alexandra Isern, head of Antarctic Science for America program with the National Science Foundation.

He said that COVID-19 disruptions are causing some pain. “In some cases, we’re going to dig the equipment out of the snow to make sure we can still find it.”

Antarctica New Zealand Chief Executive Sarah Williamson said that like other countries, New Zealand would also prioritize long-term data sets that began in the 1950s that measure climate, ozone levels, seismic activity and more. She said she is sending 100 people on ice instead of 350.

Some programs are also ending Antarctic operations by the next year or 2022, said South Africa’s director of Antarctic aid Nish Devanunthan.

“I think the biggest concern for every country is to pour out the virus,” he said. “Everyone is guarding against that.”

Caution is exercised in Gateway cities – Cape Town, Christchurch, Hobart in Australia, Punta Arenas in Chile and Ushuaia in Argentina. Each has quarantine and test protocols for workers heading south to planes and ships.

Antarctica always has its own challenges, Devanunthan said, but when it comes to COVID-19 and the international community, “I’d say it tops the list.”

A few weeks ago at McMurdo Station, activists carried out an exercise to emulate what the rest of the world is well aware of: wearing masks and social distinctions. Station manager Erin Hurd said “it won’t be hard for friends to run and hug”.

He and others would start wearing masks two days before the newcomers took off, he said, “to help us regain muscle memory.” For the mask, the team looted McMurdo’s craft room, stocked with fabric, and found the design online.

Herd will leave Antarctica as soon as colleagues arrive. He may plan to thaw out on a beach once. Now he is weighing the new normal. “Can I ask a friend to take me?” I don’t know if I’m comfortable doing this, ”he said as he envisioned getting off the plane.

“It would be super weird, to be honest, coming from what seems like another planet.”