Ex­treme iso­la­tion: World’s last virus-free cor­ners hold­ing tight

Kuwait Times - - News -

KOROR, Palau: A coro­n­avirus-free trop­i­cal is­land nes­tled in the north­ern Pa­cific may seem the per­fect place to ride out a pan­demic - but res­i­dents on Palau say life right now is far from idyllic. The mi­crostate of 18,000 peo­ple is among a dwin­dling num­ber of places on Earth that still re­port zero cases of COVID-19 as fig­ures mount daily else­where. The dis­parate group also in­cludes Samoa, Turk­menistan, North Korea and bases on the frozen con­ti­nent of Antarctica.

A dot in the ocean hun­dreds of kilo­me­ters from its near­est neigh­bors, Palau is sur­rounded by the vast Pa­cific, which has acted as a buf­fer against the virus. Along with strict travel re­stric­tions, this seems to have kept in­fec­tions at bay for a num­ber of na­tions in­clud­ing Tonga, the Solomons Is­lands, the Mar­shall Is­lands and Mi­crone­sia. But re­mote­ness is not cer­tain to stop the re­lent­less march of the new dis­ease. The North­ern Mar­i­ana Is­lands con­firmed its first cases over the week­end, fol­lowed by a sus­pected death on Mon­day.

Klamiokl Tu­lop, a 28-year-old artist and sin­gle mum, is hope­ful Palau can avoid the fate of Wuhan, New York or Madrid - where bet­ter-re­sourced health ser­vices were over­run. But she de­scribes a grow­ing sense of dread, a fear that the virus is com­ing or could al­ready be on the is­land un­de­tected. “You can feel a ris­ing ten­sion and anx­i­ety just shop­ping,” she told AFP. “Stores are crowded even more dur­ing non-pay­day weeks.” There have been sev­eral scares on Palau, in­clud­ing a po­ten­tial case that saw one per­son placed into quar­an­tine this week as au­thor­i­ties await test re­sults.

Antarc­tic seclu­sion

In­side Aus­tralia’s four re­mote Antarc­tic re­search bases, around 90 peo­ple have found them­selves en­sconced on the only virus-free con­ti­nent as they watch their old home trans­form be­yond recog­ni­tion. There is no need for so­cial dis­tanc­ing in the tun­dra. “They’re prob­a­bly the only Aus­tralians at the mo­ment that can have a large din­ner to­gether or have the bar still open or the gym still open,” Antarc­tic Di­vi­sion Op­er­a­tions man­ager Robb Clifton told AFP. The bases are now iso­lated un­til Novem­ber, so the group is safe, but Clifton ad­mits “the main thing that’s on the mind of ex­pe­di­tion­ers is how their loved ones are go­ing back home”.

In some places, re­port­ing no cases does not al­ways mean there are no cases to re­port. North Korea has por­trayed emer­gency mea­sures as an un­qual­i­fied suc­cess in keep­ing COVID-19 out, de­spite sus­tained epi­demics in neigh­bor­ing China and South Korea. But state me­dia also ap­pears to have doc­tored im­ages to give or­di­nary North Kore­ans face masks -hand­ing scep­tics rea­son to be­lieve the world’s most se­cre­tive govern­ment may not be telling the whole truth.

‘Wait­ing for the in­evitable?’

While Palau has no con­firmed cases, it has still been gripped by the so­ci­etyal­ter­ing fears and eco­nomic paral­y­sis that have af­fected the rest of the world. Su­per­mar­ket aisles in the coun­try’s largest town Koror have seen panic buy­ing and there are short­ages of hand san­i­tiz­ers, masks and al­co­hol. The is­lands de­pend heav­ily on goods be­ing shipped or flown in, mean­ing sup­plies can quickly run low.

United Air­lines used to fly six times a week from nearby Guam - which has seen more than 50 cases - but now there is just one flight a week. “Look at how bad we coped when ship­ments were late be­fore this pan­demic hap­pened,” Tu­lop said. “Ev­ery­one was prac­ti­cally in uproar.” Res­i­dents have been prac­tis­ing so­cial dis­tanc­ing. Doc­tors are wait­ing for test kits to ar­rive from Tai­wan. The govern­ment is build­ing five iso­la­tion rooms that will be able to hold up to 14 pa­tients.

It all feels like wait­ing for the in­evitable. “I would like to be op­ti­mistic we won’t get the virus,” Tu­lop said. “But Palau would most def­i­nitely get it. We rely heav­ily on tourism and most of us even need to travel for work.” Rondy Ronny’s job is to host big tourist events, but work has al­ready dried up, and he ad­mits to be­ing “very anx­ious”. “I have loans and bills and pay­ments due,” he said. “This will def­i­nitely put me back, I hope the govern­ment will do some­thing about our econ­omy too, to help it re­cover.” Palau’s big­gest test may yet come with the first pos­i­tive case. But even in the most re­mote cor­ners of the world, the im­pact of this truly global pan­demic is al­ready be­ing felt. Nowhere, it seems, is truly virus-free.


MAW­SON STA­TION, Antarctica: This handout photo taken on Feb 6, 2020 and re­leased yes­ter­day by the Aus­tralian Antarc­tic Di­vi­sion (AAD) shows ex­pe­di­tion­ers cruis­ing past ice­bergs in an in­flat­able boat near the ADD’s sta­tion.

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