(CNN) – As the rest of the world continues to face the coronavirus pandemic, one continent has managed to remain completely free of infection.
Antarctica, the coldest place on Earth, is now considered the “safest place in the world”, with no confirmed cases.
The region had a tight squeeze with Covid-19 when the outbreaks hit the season’s final cruise ships, but the virus did not reach its frozen shores. And, since it is currently descending into the winter, when it is completely cut, it should remain so for now.
Although there is no official native population here – unless counting the numerous penguins, whales, seals and albatrosses – around 5,000 people, mainly scientists and researchers, currently reside in its approximately 80 bases.
Safer place on Earth?
Antarctica is the only continent in the world that is still coronavirus-free.
“I really don’t think there is a person here right now who is not grateful to be here and to be safe,” he tells CNN Travel via email.
“Some people are ready to go home. To help people they love and to be useful in other ways during this historical period.
“But all of us are very grateful to live in a place where this disease (and all its implications for health and lifestyle) are absent.”
“I have read all I can about the dynamics of this situation,” adds Nelson, who has worked on the continent during the winter and summer seasons since 2007.
“I feel it is my duty as a human being to witness what is happening in the world.”
The 29-year-old, who comes from Scotland, works as a field guide, providing assistance to scientific colleagues who carry out research and ensuring that all field work and travel is conducted safely.
While he also kept an eye on the crisis from the start, being removed so far meant that he didn’t realize his seriousness for a while.
“I remember the reports that came out of China in early January,” says Taylor, who arrived in Antarctica about six months ago.
“So the first few cases in the UK, and thinking it was something secondary and far away, that wouldn’t have affected me.
“It occurred to me gradually as it spread and grew in the media.”
Impact on tourism
Around 78,500 tourists were expected in Antarctica during the 2019-2020 season.
Alexey Kudenko / Sputnik / AP
While Taylor, who moved between Halley VI Research Station and Rothera during his stay on the southernmost continent, is worried about the situation and worried about his family, especially his grandmother, saying it is difficult to feel connected to what it is happening sometimes.
“It’s like being on the moon and looking down,” he adds. “We can see what’s going on, but it’s a long way off.”
Tourism has thrived in Antarctica in recent years, with cruises in the Arctic becoming more popular.
Around 78,500 tourists were expected during the 2019-2020 season – the Antarctic season runs from November to late March.
Nelson, who often coordinates visits to Palmer station, says the research station welcomed thousands of people last year, but the numbers have come down this season due to the crisis.
“Several ships stop for station tours and we also travel on larger ships to lecture and do some educational awareness,” he explains.
“At the end of January, as we watched all this unfold, we stopped hosting visits and traveling to large ships, so there were far fewer visitors to Palmer station this summer.”
It is difficult to say what impact the absence of visitors could have, in the event, on the long-term tourism industry of Antarctica.
The number of visitors arriving here is relatively low in order to protect the pristine environment of the white continent.
IAATO tour operators are not allowed to disembark on a ship with more than 500 passengers and they all coordinate with each other to ensure that there is only one ship at a landing site at a given time.
Coping with insulation
According to Nelson, there have been fewer visitors to Palmer station this summer due to the pandemic.
While it’s still unclear how things will turn out in the coming months, those at Palmer Station, along with bases like South Pole Station Amundsen-Scott, where the number of visitors is much higher, remains hard at work, doing all the possible to ensure things are in place for the next season.
In Rothera there are no tourists, apart from the occasional passing yacht or the cruise ship, so things have remained practically the same count of leaders.
However, Taylor, who helps keep the equipment at the base and generally keeps the facilities tidy, notes that the process of transporting staff home has changed significantly.
The ship will depart within the next week, and once he does, he and the rest of the crew in Rothera will be alone for about five months, with no personnel arriving or leaving.
Nelson, who divides his time between the Midwest and San Francisco in the United States, previously worked at McMurdo Station and South Pole Station, before moving to Palmer Station, which currently has a population of only 20 years old.
She addresses this problem by adopting many of the same techniques that outside Antarctica are currently experimenting with during quarantine.
“I try to find ways to have fun with personal projects,” he says. “And I also remember that the time in my head is a luxury.”
However, Nelson also appears to be stuck in a place surrounded by exceptional wildlife and fascinating natural beauty.
“The bottom line is that this part of Antarctica is wonderful,” he says. “And it’s not at all difficult to get used to and thrive in such a beautiful place.”
The southernmost continent is now considered the “safest place in the world”.
However, she admits that she feels a strong sense of guilt for being so far from her closest and dearest during such a critical period in history.
“It’s so strange to be physically at the end of the world, while, at least initially, some people feared that we could really see the end of the world (or at least the end of the world as we know it),” he explains.
“Sometimes I feel disconnected and guilty of not being at home – what, help? Living the challenges that everyone else is at the same time?
“Those of us here know they wouldn’t do anyone any good, yet it’s easy to feel guilty.”
After pledging to spend 18 months on vacation and separated from his family and friends, Taylor is baffled by the idea of actually having more privileges than they do right now.
“Being in a situation where we have more freedom than we would if we stayed at home is difficult to process,” he says.
“Life and work here are inextricably intertwined. We are extremely fortunate to be able to move on with our life and our work.”
Life after coronavirus
Scientists and researchers currently residing here will return to a very different reality once they leave.
Taylor is expected to depart in April 2021, but notes that he will have to wait to see “what is the new progress” before making strong plans for his return to the UK.
“They say spending a season in Antarctica changes you,” he says. “But I can’t help but wonder if the rest of the world could change more at this time than we do.”
“We will largely continue as if the coronavirus had not happened. We have a gym, a music room, a library, a cinema … all the things we took for granted before, that those at home will be missing.”
This sentiment is shared by Nelson, who was scheduled to leave in early April, but extended it “until the arrival of a winter rescue team.”
When she, Taylor and the others finally return home, they will be greeted by a very different world. A new way of life that they witnessed only from a distance.
The seemingly simple things they enjoy here could very well become a distant memory.
“Sometimes I’m very aware that I’m an artifact,” says Nelson. “An echo. Still in the headspace of an existence that has already gone down in history.
“We can still socialize at will, without fear, give five hugs and hugs as we please, sit close together. We must not react in fear if someone coughs.
“I’m so thankful for that, and I’m really trying to appreciate the last bit of time we have to live that existence.”
“But it is also deeply sad to recognize that these little things are so extraordinary now.
“And when we leave here, we will leave all of this behind. I’m trying to force my brain to remember what it is – to impress this feeling of freedom and security – so I won’t forget later.”