Isolating in the middle of nowhere: Antarctica in the pandemic

By Alberto Valdes

King George Island, Chilean Antarctica, Feb. 2 (EFE).- When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, altering our lives with long and disruptive lockdowns, few imagined that isolating oneself could be needed even in such remote spots as the planet’s deserts, space or Antarctica.

But the virus has infiltrated the “white continent” and has also changed the routine for thousands of workers there, who are confined and isolated in one of the most isolated spots on Earth, where the vacant immensity and the wind provide the only regular company.

The privilege of visiting Antarctica requires a full commitment to facing the cold and the limitations of living at the “ends of the Earth,” but also to sharing day to day existence at the civilian and military bases where people are thrown together for long periods with no way to get away from one another.

That’s nothing new for Lea Cabrol, with the French Research and Development Institute, and Juan Hofer, with the Ocean Sciences department at Chile’s Valparaiso University, who have numerous expeditions to Antarctica under their belts.

But this year with the pandemic in full spreading mode and the appearance of even more contagious strains of the coronavirus, like the current Omicron variant, everything has become even more complicated. Both researchers had to undergo a seven-day quarantine prior to their trip to the bottom of the world and to have two PCR tests to be sure they weren’t bringing the virus with them.

Once they were in Antarctica, they have had to submit to rigorous daily monitoring of their body temperature and the tension of fighting against the constant “fear” of contagion from their companions, where every arrival and departure must be planned out weeks in advance.

All this has made “programming and operational logistics more complicated,” Cabrol told EFE, adding that she had to cancel a 2020 expedition due to the pandemic, but also has changed “daily life and relations with the other bases” in Antarctica.

That is an opinion with which Hofer agreed, saying that normally King George Island, where both are currently working, is visited by “many tourists” and there are bases that are “relatively close” to the ones those people usually visit, but “now all that is prohibited.”

King George Island – located at the extreme northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, which stretches northward toward South America like a snake’s tail – is where the continent’s greatest concentration of international bases is located, with as many as 10 countries – including Chile, Argentina, Russia, China, Uruguay, South Korea and Brazil – having personnel stationed there and among whom there is generally a tight logistical and social relationship.

All this is part of the “Antarctic spirit,” the head of Escudero Base and a marine researcher with the Chilean Antarctic Institute (Inach), Francisco Santa Cruz, told EFE.

“Sometimes something can go wrong with a boat and you call the Russians, the Uruguayans or the Koreans. But now that’s completely restricted and we depend on our individual capabilities,” Santa Cruz said.

Some of the limitations extend to life outside of work in this far-off corner of the world, where isolation goes to limits far beyond those seen elsewhere in Earth.

One of the most noteworthy cases is that of Chile’s Professor Julio Escudero and President Frei bases, which are separated from Russia’s Bellingshausen base only by the wind, which now draws an invisible line separating the two settlements, where the personnel had formerly been closely involved with one another.

Living together at the bases are military personnel, scientists and technical workers and they had been accustomed to sharing not only their workdays but also soccer and volleyball tournaments, barbecues and seminars.

These were activities that the Chinese and Uruguayans – who have bases relatively close by – also joined in on, as well as the Koreans and Argentines. Everyone jammed into the common room at Escudero where now only the local residents are to be seen playing ping-pong and watching television.

One drastic change in the Antarctic lifestyle, Cabrol said, can be summed up in the relationship with the little Russian Orthodox church located at the upper end of the valley and which can be seen from the laboratory where she does research into the distribution of bacteria throughout the southern oceans.

It is an improbable structure just a few hundred meters (yards) away that she said has a special symbolism for her, since some years back her grandmother died while Cabrol was working in Antarctica and she could not return home to be with her family.

The Russians welcomed her to their church, despite the fact that she wasn’t a believer, and they gave her the opportunity to hold a wake for her grandmother, an experience that she is unable to discuss without getting emotional, all the while gazing out at the church in the distance.

And that is the church that now she cannot visit due to the risk of becoming infected with Covid-19, the umpteenth complication in a daily reality that reminds us that “working in Antarctica seems a lot like working in space,” as Inach director Marcelo Leppe said, due to “conditions that are at the boundaries of bearable conditions on the planet.”

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