“You’d better stay there, you’re safer there,” Alberto Della Rovere, leader of the 35th Italian expedition to Antarctica, said his colleagues at home told him via WhatsApp.
For now, they appear to be right. Even in normal times, only a limited number of people are allowed in and out of Antarctica, with medical workers screening for signs of influenza and other illnesses before arrival.
“Right now, this, Antarctica, is the safest place in the world,” Della Rovere said. “There are no outside contacts and we’re far away from any settlement.”
On social media, residents of various Antarctic stations have acknowledged their strange status. “I think it is safe to say that McMurdo Station, Antarctica, had the largest St. Patrick’s Party in the world in 2020,” wrote one person stationed there.
A U.S. contractor at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station posted a photograph of boxes and boxes of toilet paper. “Don’t worry about us,” he wrote.
People stationed in Antarctica might be unlikely to catch the virus, but they would be at great risk if they did. While most bases would be able to handle a single case of a serious respiratory infection, they would struggle to contain one that spreads as rapidly as the coronavirus. And there’s no way to guarantee that it won’t eventually spread to ends of the Earth.
“No continent is immune, including Antarctica,” said Jeff Ayton, chief medical officer at the Australian Antarctic Division.
‘No better quarantine’
Twenty-eight countries have research stations on Antarctica. The largest is McMurdo Station, a U.S. research base on the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, which can support more than 1,000 residents, most of whom stay for a season or two to conduct or support scientific research.
The population of the continent is highest during the Antarctic summer, from October to February. In winter, during which the continent falls under darkness and temperatures plummet, many stations close and others stay open with skeleton staffs.
In these winter months, the isolation could be a blessing. The harsh conditions make travel in and out extremely difficult, reducing the risk that someone could introduce the virus.
“There’s no better quarantine and isolation than Neumayer Station,” said Tim Heitland, the medical coordinator for Germany’s Antarctica program, of the station where he served as doctor and base commander in 2017.
Most stations have at least one doctor during winter. “The biggest challenge was me biting on a frozen gummy bear and breaking off a piece of my tooth,” Heitland said of his winter stint.
As the coronavirus spreads exponentially in the rest of the world, health problems on Antarctic bases remain mostly mundane. “It’s very much business as usual here,” said Mike Brian, station leader at Britain’s Rothera Research base. The use of hand sanitizer has gone up, he said.
“We have one doctor here at the base, and she’s been giving us vials — of the kind generally employed for scientific tests — that she has been filling with hand sanitizing gel,” Della Rovere said.
While the risk may seem remote for now, keeping the continent from getting its first coronavirus case is a priority for countries with bases there.
“I’ve been involved in the Antarctic activities since 1988, and in my personal recollection, I can’t think of anything that’s had this global, challenging nature about it,” said Michelle Rogan-Finnemore, the executive secretary of the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs, or COMNAP.
The association, formed in 1988, offers coordination between the various national Antarctic programs. It has taken a prominent role in advising governments and sharing best practices during the coronavirus pandemic, publishing a confidential guidance on March 16.
Given the close quarters and isolation on stations, infectious diseases are always a matter of concern. “It would really be a bad thing to get influenza virus, that would really make life not easy,” Heitland said, “or if you had a serious case of diarrhea on a station — then you’d need to stock up on toilet paper.”
“It’s akin to living on the moon or on the way to Mars. We can’t get these people out,” said Ayton. “We can’t do a medical evacuation from our Australians stations for up to nine months” of the year.
Australia and Germany confirmed they had respirators at their stations, but the British and American Antarctic programs would not answer questions about respirators in interviews. Rogan-Finnemore said COMNAP had advised national governments to make sure they had enough oxygen to treat a respiratory infection like covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Far from help
Medical officers in Antarctica have plenty of reasons to worry.
“If you have an infectious agent in a remote site with austere medical facilities, it will overwhelm a single doctor,” Ayton said. “We don’t have additional nurses or other trained health-care professionals.”
While many countries closed their stations for winter before the outbreak reached its current intensity, McMurdo is only just finishing its summer season. Planes are still landing and taking off from the airstrip.
Mike England, a press officer for the National Science Foundation, said most of the flights were departures, but some people were arriving as well.
Those entering Antarctica would do so only after undergoing “isolation and testing protocols being overseen by our medical advisers,” he said. While newcomers are screened for covid-19 symptoms, they are not being tested, he said.
But variations in practices between stations have raised alarms. “Anywhere there is a point of entry into the continent from a [national] program where there are high case rates, whether it is the United States, or France or Italy, or wherever, you can’t guarantee it,” Ayton said.
So far, however, the closest exposure to the coronavirus anyone in Antarctica appears to have had is reading about it from afar. The stations are isolated, but satellite phones and the Internet make it easy to stay up to date with the chaos unfolding back home.
“There’s a huge spectrum across the people I’ve spoken to,” said Brian of the atmosphere on Britain’s Rothera base. “Some people are of the opinion that they would like to be home soon to be with friends and family, [while] other people are of the opinion they’d kind of like to sit it out here."
Italy’s Della Rovere said while his colleagues had joked they should stay in Antarctica, no one took that seriously. “Those who have family, those who have children, are quite worried,” he said.
The Italian summer expedition, which Della Rovere leads, is making its way back to Italy.
The group is traveling on a South Korean vessel to New Zealand, where it has been granted an exemption from mandatory quarantines for visitors. They will not arrive in New Zealand until April 9, and it isn’t clear how they will get back to Italy, as their flights have been canceled.
Heitland, who has spent 14 months at Neumayer Station but is working from home in Bremerhaven, Germany, because of the outbreak, said spending a winter in Antarctica changes the way you come think about what we know as mutual responsibility.
“You learn what really is important in life,” he said. “You really get to know that it’s not all about consuming things, having the newest whatever. It’s way more about being a good team, communicating and taking care of each other.”