By Waldheim Garcia Montoya
Fernando de Noronha, Brazil, Dec 7 (efe-epa).- The idyllic Fernando de Noronha archipelago, registered as a “Covid-free” territory during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic in Brazil, is once again gradually opening its doors to tourism, its main income source, albeit under strict health protocols.
Located in the mid-Atlantic Ocean and an hour by air from Recife, the capital of Brazil’s Pernambuco state, which administers the island grouping, economic activity on Noronha is almost exclusively tourism-related since fishing is not permitted in the vicinity because it’s a protected marine preserve.
The island paradise is also the Brazilian territory farthest from the mainland and in 2001 UNESCO declared it to be a World Heritage Site thanks to the unique biodiversity of the islands where certain endemic species live, including Noronha skinks.
To protect the 21-island group’s 3,000 residents, Pernambuco authorities in April made the difficult decision to cut off both air and water access to the zone, allowing only resupply of food, fuel and medicines and the transportation of people with health emergencies to the mainland.
The regional administration said that without adequate hospital infrastructure in the archipelago, a collapse of the health care system due to the pandemic would be “fatal” and thus the islands have remained “isolated” for almost seven months.
Tourism and fishing guide Lucas Antonio told EFE that the situation “wasn’t easy” during the months in which the islands’ residents remained dependent on government economic aid “but there was always an awareness of the risk, because Noronha was not going to be able to handle serious cases of the disease.”
In September, the archipelago once again began allowing in tourists who had recovered from Covid-19 who had tested positive more than 15 days earlier, the quarantine period recommended by international health authorities, but were now testing negative.
A month later, on Oct. 10, the rule was made more flexible and, besides recovered patients, the islands’ began welcoming tourists who had tested negative 24 hours before traveling to Noronha.
That situation was expected to result in an increase in cases, but the protocols set up within the archipelago have allowed local authorities to control the spread of the virus there, despite the presence of newly infected people.
“This opening occurred only because of the extremely responsible and serious (actions) of the Pernambuco government, with actions based on science,” said Guilherme Rocha, the archipelago’s administrator, who said that there had been no “community spread” in the islands since May, meaning that the source of all new infections is clearly known.
Besides the obligatory Covid-19 test for people wanting to come to Noronha from outside, local authorities are registering health data for any visitors, who must install an app on their mobile phones that will allow their movements to be traced to create a map of the circulation of the virus if new cases appear.
Upon leaving the islands and at local authorities’ cost, tourists are once again given a PCR test, the result of which is provided to the patients if it comes back positive and, from there, local authorities can trace the movements of that person to determine which local residents he/she came in contact with.
On Dec. 4, according to official figures, Fernando de Noronha reported eight new Covid-19 cases, bringing the total number of confirmed cases since March to 261, of which 206 patients have recovered and 55 are in quarantine without having been hospitalized.
According to local authorities’ statistics, no Covid deaths have occurred among island residents, although 195 people – including residents and workers living on the islands – have become infected while the other 66 cases were tourists.
Among all of those who became sick, only one 43-year-old patient had to be hospitalized and was taken to a Recife hospital, where he recovered.
Despite the strict controls, the archipelago has had to deal with attempted fraud involving the clinical tests for tourists coming from continental Brazil, where more than 6.5 million cases have been confirmed and almost 176,000 people have died from Covid-19.
Four tourists from the central state of Tocantins who arrived on a private aircraft were arrested in late October after they presented false obligatory test results and refused to take another test offered by local health authorities.