SANTIAGO/BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - In the frozen and desolate expanse of Antarctica, Alejandro Valenzuela Pena is used to a feeling of isolation. Now, however, that has taken on a new meaning as the only continent still free from the coronavirus looks to keep the pandemic out.
The global spread of the disease, with almost 2 million cases and 120,000 deaths, has put the Antarctic region into lockdown, with researchers hunkering down in their bases and tourist visits canceled.
“We are trained to live in isolation, but now with this special condition that has presented itself, we are isolated within isolation,” said Valenzuela, 41, who is the maritime governor of Chile’s Antarctica territory.
Speaking by phone from the Escudero military base in Bahia Fildes, the extreme southwest of King George Island, Valenzuela said his 100-person naval crew was grappling with self-isolation but that early moves to lock things down had helped.
“The bases closed up in time,” he said. Boats had stopped arriving in early March and flights by the end of the month, he added. “Since then we’ve been really isolated, with no contact.”
That has meant an end to some of the activities that normally help pass the time amid the blistering cold. Intra-base ping pong and basketball tournaments had been canceled.
“We’re taking it in our stride, safe in the knowledge that our families are well and that so far things here in Antarctica have gone well,” Valenzuela said.
Antarctic tourism, which has grown rapidly in recent years, ground to a halt weeks ago as outbreaks aboard cruise ships hit headlines and governments put travel restrictions in place.
Now, the bases house skeleton crews of researchers and military staff - accompanied only by elephant seals and penguins, and surrounded by thousands of miles of icebergs and snow plains.
Argentina, which has around 170 scientific and military personnel remaining on Antarctica, has limited visitors to its bases except for the delivery of vital supplies. Staff were given virus protection guidelines as early as Feb. 1.
“Argentina was one of the first countries in the world to take action on the coronavirus,” said Daniel Filmus, Secretary of the Malvinas, Antarctica and the South Atlantic.
Dr. Alexandra Isern, Head of the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Sciences Section, said measures like frequent hand-washing were already commonplace on Antarctic bases. In an often cramped living space, illnesses can spread fast.
“We have always maintained robust public hygiene and health protocols to combat sickness in close quarters,” she said, adding that the U.S. stations were well equipped to manage issues related to COVID-19.
The increased social distancing, however, has eliminated the few friendly gatherings researchers normally enjoy, with no more visits between colleagues at Russian, Chinese, Korean and Uruguayan bases on King George island. Social dinners, sporting events and weekend skiing outings have been canceled.
Even a souvenir shop attached to the Russian military base that sold cuddly toy penguins and t-shirts emblazoned with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s face, where tourists would buy postcards to mail from the nearby Chilean base, was shut down as a potential source of cross-contamination.
For countries doing research on Antarctica, the coronavirus crisis could seriously impact the progress of scientific study, officials said.
As the pandemic develops “there will no doubt be implications for the next austral summer field season,” said Stephanie Short, head of the U.S. National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Antarctic Infrastructure and Logistics Section.
Short said NSF flights to Antarctica were only operating to bring back staff members not needed for the upcoming winter season.
“We will continue to work closely with our medical advisers before future deployments take place,” she said.
Major global conferences for Antarctic decision-making have also been canceled as borders have closed and large gatherings banned. That includes a May meeting in Helsinki and another in Hobart, Australia that had been planned for July.
Peter Convey, a professor with the British Antarctic Survey, warned the disruption to scientific operations could interrupt crucial monitoring of climate change markers and the continuity of long-term sampling.
“It’s incredibly important science and you need people on the ground taking those measurements, maintaining equipment,” he said. “If we can’t get the people in, we can’t do it, logistically we can’t support it.”
Reporting by Aislinn Laing in Santiago and Cassandra Garrison in Buenos Aires; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Rosalba O'Brien