Changes for Australian Antarctic Program to keep the icy continent free of COVID-19

Worlds Apart

Video transcript

Dr RHYS HARDING, Davis research station

I came down on the Aurora Australis icebreaker in October last year, so I was the ship's doctor for the voyage down south and I've so far been the doctor on station, probably a little over eight prior to the coronavirus outbreak, there were no specific public health measures in place at that time. It has been such a strange and a very surreal experience to observe the pandemic outbreak from down in Antarctica.

We realise that we are some of the very few on the planet who are essentially unaffected by COVID-19 and so we find ourselves living in this parallel world, just goes on as normal for us. Of course everyone has had concerns about the health and well-being of those back home. We're not immune to the same, you know, anxieties that a lot of other people are probably experiencing because of the pandemic and the way that it's taken its grip, and that can be quite hard to manage, you know, not only as individuals but also as a community when you are so alienated from this global disaster.

In saying that we do feel quite safe here in Antarctica. I mean, safe is a very fluid term because Antarctica is such a dangerous place, but we feel very safe being removed from the COVID-19 virus.

Antarctica is the only COVID-free continent and it's very important that it remains that way. I imagine this is going to be a huge challenge for all national Antarctic programs over the next 12 months or so.

There's only 24 of us here. I'm the only medically trained person. I have four lay surgical assistants to assist me. One's a plumber, a carpenter, I have a diesel mechanic and a fitter and turner, but ultimately if we had one very unwell person, particularly with a severe respiratory illness, it would overwhelm the station.

When everyone here was informed of the decision to have to stay another four months for an extra summer season, there were definitely mixed responses. It wasn't a complete surprise given what we had come to know and what we were observing from flow-on effects from around the world with regards to you know, shipping and aviation changes, but it did hit some expeditioners quite hard.

Ultimately this is something beyond our control and I think we really have to view this as an additional opportunity to just make the most of this beautiful place. The reality is that we will come home to a different world but we are trying to not let that consume us whilst we're trying to enjoy life on this frozen continent. We'll take it day by day. It's obviously a very rapidly evolving situation in Australia and across the world, so all we can try and do is make the most of being here and see what it has in store when we kind of get back off the ship.

Yeah, can we shake hands? Can we do that? Can i give my mum a hug? What are we allowed to do? I've got this feeling that I'm going to get off the ship and give my mum a hug and then get arrested. Is that gonna happen? I don't know, that's what we think about.

[end transcript]

plane on ice
Basler near Casey research station, 2017 (Photo: John Gilmour)
Plane on iceplanes on ice runway with passengers getting off

The Australian Antarctic Program is taking steps to keep Antarctica COVID-19 free ahead of the next summer season, including a decision not to deploy small intra-continental aircraft.

Australia normally uses fixed wing planes to fly expeditioners between our three continental stations and field locations.

To get to Antarctica, the Basler and Twin Otter planes transit from Canada through North and South America, then across the Antarctic continent, stopping at other nations’ bases to reach Australian stations.

General Manager of Operations and Safety, Charlton Clark, said the uncertainty around the spread of COVID-19 and the risk of introducing it into Antarctica through this route has led to the decision.

“This means there will be no flights between Australia’s three Antarctic stations, Casey, Davis and Mawson,” Charlton Clark said.

“This will impact some of our wintering expeditioners, who were scheduled to return home at the end of this year. They will now have to wait for the ship in February.”

“Additionally some projects requiring flights between our stations have been cancelled for this summer.”

Inter-continental flights between Hobart and Australia’s Wilkins Aerodrome, near Casey station, will continue during the summer season between October and March.

“We will be implementing a number of other measures to keep our people safe,” said Mr Clark.

“We will have a compulsory quarantine period in Hobart before expeditioners go south and everyone will be screened before getting on board our ship or planes.”

This season’s activities have been scaled back and it’s anticipated around 250 people will travel south.

“We will be focusing on changing over our teams and resupplying stations. There will be no major construction activities and science projects will be limited to automated data collection.”

“Our planning for the 2020–21 summer season is focused on preventing the introduction of COVID-19 to our stations and keeping our people safe,” Mr Clark said.