One year later: are 10 of the world's most remote destinations still Covid-19 free?
The rapid spread of the virus over the past year means few places remain untouched
This time last year, as the coronavirus tightened its grip, The National identified 10 of the world's most remote destinations which were untouched by the pandemic.
By that point, more than 1.5 million infections had been reported across 209 countries and territories.
The rapid spread of the virus made finding a safe haven a daunting task.
Fast-forward 12 months, about 143 million cases have been confirmed around the world, making the challenge more arduous.
But what of our 10 far-flung lands which were untouched by the outbreak?
With travel to most countries still locked down, this seems a good time to take an online trip to see how they fared.
La Rinconada intrigues experts
Despite being recorded as the world’s highest town, the remote mining community of La Rinconada in the Peruvian Andes seemed ill-equipped to fend off the coronavirus.
Plagued by crime, pollution, poor sanitation and diseases among its workers, La Rinconada is said to have two doctors for a population estimated at 30,000. Worst of all, Peru has so far recorded 1.7 million cases and at least 57,000 deaths.
Yet La Rinconada is reported to have escaped relatively lightly, although precise figures are hard to find. While people have been catching coronavirus, they seem much less likely to die from it than in lowland Peru.
At more than 5,100 metres above sea level, it is one of several mining communities whose relative resistance to coronavirus has puzzled scientists.
There are several theories. One is that living at high altitude means residents develop greater lung capacity to deal with the lower levels of oxygen. As a result, they do not develop such severe breathing problems when infected.
A second is that as such an altitude, there is a much greater concentration of ultraviolet radiation, which has acted as a natural disinfectant.
In October, scientists began a study of the coronavirus and La Rinconada, with the results expected at the end of this year.
Longyearbyen still virus-free but not unscathed
There are no roads to Longyearbyen, the world’s most northerly town, on the Norwegian Island of Spitsbergen, which is the largest island on the Svalbard archipelago. Nor have there been any cases of the coronavirus, with the community in a complete state of isolation.
Still, Longyearbyen has been indirectly hit hard by the disease, which has driven away the tourists who are a crucial part of the local economy.
Hotels and restaurants were closed, and since living expenses are so high in the town, many workers have been forced to relocate to the Norwegian mainland.
Residents are regularly tested, and social distancing measures are generally followed.
There is good reason for these precautions. Medical services are limited and there is no urgent care centre for the 2,700 people who live there.
Realising the effect the coronavirus could have on the community, the Norwegian government rushed 2,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine to Longyearbyen last month.
Polar bears pose a bigger threat in Ittoqqortoormiit
They do not come much more remote than Ittoqqortoomiit, Greenlandic for “big house dwellers” and often described as the world’s most remote community.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there has not been a single case of the coronavirus, in a town where a polar bear attack is more likely.
Situated on the edge of a fjord, and with a helicopter the only way in or out except for a few months when the sea unfreezes, the town has a population of about 400. There are no cars or mobile phone signals.
Greenland has registered four cases of coronavirus this year, out of a grand total of 31 since the pandemic began, and with no deaths. Most have been in the capital, Nuuk.
A look back at the Beyond the Headlines podcast from May 2020
Among the measures taken have been a ban on the sale of alcohol and shutting down all non-essential flights. As a result, with all cases currently recovered, Greenland is the only place in the world to have become Covid-free without a single death.
The pandemic has been a disaster for the economy. The number of visitors to Greenland, a popular cruise ship stop, have fallen by 70 per cent. Ittoqqortoomiit’s single guest house, billed as the world’s most remote hotel, is another casualty.
According to the newspaper Arctic Today, “the world’s largest island has been almost shut off from the rest of the world.”
Palmerston Island in good health but faces financial hardships
A coral atoll accessible only by boat and 4,830 kilometres from New Zealand, Palmerston Island has also escaped without a single case of the coronavirus.
It forms part of the Cook Islands, in the middle of the Pacific Island, with inhabitants also having the right to New Zealand citizenship.
The 15 islands and 17,000 inhabitants, who are self-governing, have been coronavirus-free for the entire pandemic.
With tourism the largest part of the economy, many have suffered hardship, relying on remittances from family living overseas, or handouts from the government’s $4.6 million bailout package - money it cannot afford.
Even with a travel bubble to New Zealand, the number of visitors has dropped to a few hundred and the economy is in real danger of collapse.
Utqiagvik unable to keep out Covid-19
Status as the most northerly town in the US has not been enough to keep the coronavirus out.
Utqiagvik, population 4,500, is the largest community in Alaska’s North Slope, where several hundred cases and at least four Covid-19 deaths were reported.
In response, the town has enacted a series of tough public health measures, including 14-day quarantine for arrivals, mandatory mask wearing in public spaces and, in November, a requirement that rule-breakers have to make a public service announcement about the dangers of Covid-19, either in a radio broadcast or on a poster.
Utquigvik is 2,000 kilometres from the North Pole, with the Sun below the horizon from late November to the end of January.
Right now, the reverse is almost true. Utqiagvik has 17 hours of daylight and from next month the Sun will not set until August.
The other ray of light is that Alaska’s vaccination rate, currently at around 30 per cent who have had both doses, is one of the highest in the US.
Strict measures pay off in Tristan da Cunha
The shortest journey to Tristan da Cunha, a British overseas territory in the South Atlantic, is a week-long voyage from South Africa.
After imposing a total ban on visitors at the start of the pandemic, the island has remained coronavirus free and there is no social distancing.
The 50 or so inhabitants of the archipelago are part of the UK’s vaccine programme, but according to the British Foreign Office they have not yet received their first doses.
World Health Organisation data showed that 14 countries have escaped without a single case of the coronavirus.
All but two are remote island nations in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, including Tonga, the Pitcairn Islands, American Samoa, and Saint Helena, where French military leader and former emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled until his death in 1821.
The exceptions are Turkmenistan and North Korea, whose claims to be coronavirus free have met with scepticism.
Oymyakon highlights wide-ranging impact of the Covid-19 age
Here is the news from Oymyakon. Right now, it is a balmy minus 9° Celsius, with snow forecast for next week.
Billed as the coldest city in the world, the Siberian community of less than 1,000 people regularly deals with winter temperatures that drop to minus 50° Celsius.
Masks have long been essential to ward off frostbite let alone disease, and social distancing comes with the territory.
Whether this has been enough to keep out the coronavirus is unclear. The Russian Federation has reported 4.7 million cases to date, and about 106,000 deaths.
More worrying is a report from November that several mutations of the disease were detected in Siberia. Of equal concern is a rise in domestic violence during lockdown.
Ruslan Mellin, a facial surgeon in Siberia, and an amateur artist, drew attention through a series of portraits of victims he has treated, telling the Art Newspaper: “The number of patients with broken jaws, especially women, started to grow”.
Resistance is broken in Villa Las Estrellas
One of two civilian settlements in Antarctica, which a year ago had the distinction of being the only continent to be coronavirus free. Not any more.
In December, 36 people tested positive for coronavirus at a Chilean research base, of which Villa Las Estrellas is a link.
One hundred more tests were done, producing another case in the settlement itself. As there are no permanent residents in Antarctica, they were flown to Chile for treatment.
About 30 countries maintain research bases on the continent, conducting scientific research, with a population that rises from 1,000 to 5,000 in the summer.
Last year, the pandemic cut these numbers considerably, while cruise ships stopped entirely after 60 per cent of passengers tested positive for coronavirus on one vessel heading for Antarctica in March
Scientists making the trip must follow strict quarantine measures before beginning their stay in the most remote place on Earth.
The US and the UK cancelled a joint research project to study the Thwaites Glacier last summer. The Americans put a separate toilet on a pallet inside their supply aircraft so flight crew do not need to share facilities with passengers.
In March this year, Chile announced it had vaccinated 49 staff working in Antarctica, the first country to do so.
Visitor numbers dwindle in Siwa Oasis
The abrupt ending of tourism was always going to be the biggest blow to Siwa Oasis, a community 33,000 people, largely Berber, who live in the desert more than 600 kilometres from Cairo.
Egypt has reported at least 217,000 cases and more than 12,800 deaths from Covid-19, with numbers rising in a third wave.
With support from the Egyptian government and the European Union, it was hoped a restoration on the 13th Century Shali fortress at the heart of the Oasis would be a major attraction for the growing and lucrative ecotourist market.
Instead, the number of visitors last year fell by almost 90 per cent to 3,000.
Egypt opened its borders to tourists again in July, but the traditional Siyaha Peace Festival, held every year in Siwa in September was cancelled.
Kerguelen Islands keeps virus at a distance
Far-flung barely begins to describe the Kerguelen Islands, where the nearest other human population is Madagascar, more than 3,000 kilometres away.
In France, which administers the territory, they are known as Iles de la Désolation.
Accessible only by ship, the human population of between 50 and 100 lives and works on a French research base and satellite tracking station.
There are no recorded cases of the coronavirus on the Kerguelen Islands, but back home in France there are estimated to be more than a million active infections, and now in excess of 101,000 deaths. Desolation suddenly seems an attractive proposition.
Updated: April 20, 2021 11:44 AM