Svalbard, while suffering Norway’s worst unemployment and economic loss from the COVID-19, remains the World Health Organization’s only “zone” on Earth with no officially diagnosed cases more than three months after the virus was declared a pandemic.
Aside, that is, from 1) North Korea and Turkmenistan – where words like “out of control” and “starving” are being used by reputable sources to describe the real situation being kept hidden by the countries’ totalitarian leadership; 2) some very tiny Pacific islands; and 3) Antarctica, which literally isn’t on the WHO’s map.
Of course, Svalbard’s unemployment/economic hardships and virus-free status are intertwined due to the government enforcing the toughest set of restrictions on the archipelago beginning in March due to the lack of medical facilities and remoteness from emergency services on the mainland. But people other than full-time residents now able to travel here since June 1, concerns are being voiced about whom among the relative trickle of visitors will inevitably remove Svalbard from its zero-case classification (assuming local/nation officials aren’t pulling off a remarkable totalitarian cover-up of their own).
There are nearly 9.5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and about 483,686 deaths worldwide as of Friday due to the virus, according to the WHO. The WHO, as with many entities, pairs the the volcanic island of Jan Mayen (which has no permanent population) with Svalbard under the International Organization for Standardization’s classification for territories.
All businesses engaging in tourist-related activities, organized or not, must have safety plans approved by The Governor of Svalbard and additional police officers are patrolling to ensure guidelines are being enforced.
People are acknowledging the virus will eventually reach Svalbard, but so far there’s aren’t any reports of tourism-related businesses trying to evade the still-strict precautionary measures in effect, said Ronny Brunvoll, director of Visit Svalbard.
“For the tourism business the absolute worst scenario is a new lockdown,” he said. “I don’t think anyone is going too put that at risk.”
About 90 percent of Longyearbyen’s tourism employees were laid off during the weeks following the pandemic declaration, according Brunvoll and other officials at the time, although he said that figure was closer to 80 percent in May. While some additional employees have since been rehired with the lifting of the travel ban, it’s clear this summer will see only a small fraction of the more than 60,000 people who might visit during a normal season, due largely to the cancellation of all large cruise ships.
Brunvoll told Svalbardposten earlier this week an average of 110 visitors are expected to overnight each day in Svalbard this week and that figure is expected to increase to 120 next week. A bigger boost will come when “expedition cruises” – defined as ships with room for 500 or fewer passengers (and which can only be booked to half capacity) – such as those operated by Hurtigruten are scheduled to resume sailings to the archipelago in July.
Some people have found silver linings in the cloud cast by the extreme shutdown measures. Marco Casula, a technician at Italy’s Institute of Polar Sciences of the National Research Council, told the Italian newspaper Corriere Nazionale he found himself as the de facto leader of the country’s research station in Ny-Ålesund during a project he started in January that ended up offering some unexpected opportunities until he was finally able to return home this month.
“I was supposed to return to Italy in early March, my stay was extended until April for organizational reasons and I found myself the only Italian in the technical-scientific community of Ny-Alesund at the time the pandemic broke out from COVID-19,” he said. “No one was therefore able to come and change us and we found ourselves in double isolation. I thus had the opportunity to continue my business, maintaining the continuity of data sampling and maintenance of the tools, necessary for the study of the dynamics of environmental processes and climate change.
“During this period the human and professional ties created with foreign colleagues, the attitude to problem solving that characterizes those who work in these latitudes, and the internet connection allowed me to stay in touch with Italy.”
As for the other “virus-free” territories, a figurative epidemic of independent reports defy the officially provided figures for the two most visible countries. Medics in Turkmenistan, for instance, told Radio Free Europe the situation is “out of control,” while Voice of America reports North Korea is suffering a multitude of effects including a widespread hunger crisis.
(It’s worth noting, along those lines, some residents of Svalbard have speculated on social media – some seriously, some in jest and some alleging the government is still denying it – COVID-19 infiltrated late last year when a large number of people suffered severe cases of “crud.”)
In terms of “zero” bragging rights when it to sheer numbers, however, the cluster of tiny countries and microstates in Oceania win in a tidal wave, as a high percentage of the more than 10,000 islands (averaging less than 30 square miles in size) have no reported COVID-19 cases. Among those territories, as of this week, are Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
Finally, the biggest in terms of sheer size – not to mention being the only coronavirus-free continent – is Antarctica, which like Svalbard went to extremes in enforcing a lockdown. However, it doesn’t show on the WHO’s live tracking, possibly because there are no permanent inhabitants.