What life is like on Antarctica, the only continent without a case of coronavirus

Globally there are more than 250,000 confirmed cases.

March 20, 2020, 4:36 PM

For much of the world, the novel coronavirus pandemic is changing life as we know it. But a handful of people in Antarctica are watching from the sidelines, not impacted by the sweeping changes and, for the most part, the sense of unease.

Antarctica remains the only continent without a confirmed case of coronavirus. Globally there are more than 258,000 confirmed cases and more than 11,000 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Stijn Thoolen, a 29-year-old researcher with the European Space Agency who has been at the Concordia Station in Antarctica since November, said being in the southernmost continent already felt "so otherworldly" because of the increasing darkness and cold.

PHOTO: Stijn Thoolen has been in Antarctica since November. He is watching the pandemic unfold on the only continent without any confirmed cases.
Stijn Thoolen has been in Antarctica since November. He is watching the pandemic unfold on the only continent without any confirmed cases.
ESA/IPEV/PNRA - S. Thoolen

"To see what is happening in the rest of the world only makes me feel further detached. It really is another world," Thoolen said in an email exchange.

He is part of a 12-person crew there, and performing biomedical experiments comparing the Antarctic winter environment to long-duration spaceflight missions. For some of his Italian and French colleagues, he said it has been particularly difficult for them to be away during this time.

Italy has recorded the highest number of deaths, surpassing China where the virus was first detected in December.

PHOTO: The two towers of the Franco-Italian climate station Concordia, situated at the Antarctic, Jan. 27, 2007.
The two towers of the Franco-Italian climate station Concordia, situated at the Antarctic, Jan. 27, 2007.
Guy Clavel/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

"At times it feels a little inconsiderate," Thoolen said. "When we enjoy ourselves dressing up for the Saturday night or celebrating a second Christmas just because we can."

He has been in contact with family and friends, with the people close to him doing well and jokingly asking for tips on social distancing. He's also trying to stay up to date with the news through the public computers, but slow internet means "it requires a bit of patience."

Mainly, he hopes there is a positive that can come out of the situation.

"Being taken out of the comfort of our daily routine may give us an opportunity to see the precious things that we usually like to take for granted. It shows us how vulnerable we can really be," he said.

Thoolen has also seen videos circulating online of people in Italy and Spain applauding health care workers.

"The virus can make us realize how much we depend on each other," he said. "To see the many beautiful and encouraging messages passing by, and the singing and applauding in the streets for health care workers for example, I find very touching."

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