The coronavirus pandemic has spread to Antarctica as well, with more than 30 people at a Chilean military and research base reported to be infected. But right now it is not posing any threat to the 50-odd Indian team that is based in the two permanent stations in the southernmost continent.
“The Chilean bases are very far away from where we are. In fact, they would be almost 5,000 km away. So, there is no threat to our team right now,” M Ravichandran, director of the Goa-based National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR), told The Indian Express.
NCPOR is the nodal laboratory for coordinating India’s research activities in Antarctica, and also in the Arctic region. India operates two permanent stations in Antarctica, Maitri and Bharati, which are manned by scientists all year-round.
“Following the Covid epidemic, an international protocol for working in Antarctica has been agreed upon. There is practically no interaction amongst scientists from different countries. No one is going to any other country’s research station. The team that is nearest to us is that of Russians, which is about ten km away. But we have stopped all interactions with them, and everyone else, since the start of the epidemic. The Chilean station is so far away, there is no chance of any interaction even in normal times,” Ravichandran said.
But it is not that Covid is not causing any worries. A new batch of scientists is slated to travel to Antarctica next month, to relieve those who are currently there, as happens every year. The people who are currently manning the Indian stations had travelled in December last year, before the outbreak of the epidemic.
Ravichandran said the biggest concern right now was to ensure that no one in the departing team takes the infection with him.
“About 50 people are supposed to leave next month. We are taking all precautions to ensure that none of them gets the disease. All of them are already in Goa now and have been quarantined in a hotel. They are being tested every five days to check for any infection,” he said.
Because of the pandemic, the Indian team this time will travel to Antarctica directly from Goa. Normally, the team travels to South Africa and boards a ship from Cape Town to cover the remaining distance. But this time, NCPOR has hired a Russian vessel that would carry the team from Goa itself.
“Travelling to South Africa would have been difficult. Flight services are disrupted. Then, there is the additional risk of exposure. The team would have had to remain quarantined in South Africa for two weeks before leaving for Antarctica. So, instead of that, we decided to travel directly from Goa,” he said.
“Precautions are being taken to ensure that no one gets infected during the journey also. It’s about a month-long journey, and the ship will have to refuel once, maybe in Mauritius or some other place. People would continue to be tested onboard as well, and if someone does get infected, contingency plans have been put in place to isolate, and, if possible, deboard them on the way,” he said.
Apart from those headed to the permanent Indian stations, there are several scientists who travel to Antarctica for their research projects. Many of them spend a few months there between December and April, collecting data or making observations for their research. Those scientists were unable to go to Antarctica this year because of the pandemic. This group usually departs in November and comes back in April.
The Maitri and Bharati stations, together, have a capacity to house about 100 people at one time during the summers. In winters, slightly fewer people can be accommodated. But usually, the Indian team, who are there to man the stations, comprises about fifty people at any time.
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