Health and Healthcare Systems

How have the remotest places on Earth fared during COVID-19?

The coast of Port Stanley is seen from Moody Brook, Falkland Islands, May 17, 2018. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci - RC1B40FDEAA0

Remote chance of an outbreak. Image: REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • Their relative isolation has generally helped remote areas weather the pandemic.
  • Yet some of the most remote and least-populated places in the world have reported cases of COVID-19.
  • The disease poses a disproportionate threat to people located far from hospitals and intensive care units.

This past March, passenger service on the “Silver Supporter,” a lifeline to the outside world for the Pitcairn Islands, was suspended due to COVID-19. A 32-hour trip on the freighter is normally the last leg of the journey to this British outpost in the southern Pacific, following at least two flights and a ferry ride. But with its population of about 50 descendants of HMS Bounty mutineers located at least two days' travel from the nearest hospital, the territory wasn’t taking any chances.

Despite the best efforts of places like the Pitcairns, the mixed record of the most remote, sparsely populated locales in the world when it comes to avoiding COVID-19 is testament to the disease’s daunting ability to spread. While it’s true that these places are generally protected by their isolation, that isolation can also make them especially vulnerable to outbreaks.

The administrator of Tristan da Cunha, a remote island in the south Atlantic Ocean with a population of about 250, wrote this past May that while the locals there are used to isolation, “we still follow the news on the television, and are very concerned” about the spreading coronavirus – though it had yet to arrive.

Other places have been less fortunate. Papua New Guinea, where the bulk of the population lives more than 10 kilometres from the closest major road, registered 11 confirmed cases of COVID-19 by 14 July. Montserrat, a relatively difficult-to-reach Caribbean island where the population declined by roughly half between 1990 and 2015 as volcano eruptions buried its former capital, registered 12 by that point – and one death.

Easter Island (Rapa Nui), the Chilean territory located more than a few thousand kilometres west of the mainland in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, with 7,750 inhabitants and nearly 1,000 famous statues, has confirmed a handful of cases. And Greenland, the least densely populated place in the world, registered 13 cases as of 14 July.

Image: World Economic Forum

This past March, officials in the Falkland Islands implemented social distancing measures in an archipelago with less than 0.3 people per square kilometre. Yet, the British overseas territory located about 500 kilometres east of Argentina had 13 confirmed cases of COVID-19 by 14 July.

It’s not particularly easy to reach the Falklands. Normally, there are twice-weekly flights from the UK via the Royal Air Force, though civilians were recently restricted to every third flight due to the pandemic. The islands also implemented a requirement that visitors quarantine for two weeks, with the exception of UK military personnel in quarantine before arrival (Argentina, 38 years after a war broke out over the matter, still considers “las islas Malvinas” occupied territory).

The Falkland Islands are located about 500 kilometres east of Argentina.
The Falkland Islands are located about 500 kilometres east of Argentina. Image: Google Maps

Regardless of their direct exposure to COVID-19, many remote locations have suffered at least indirectly – as tourism has vanished, and as traditional means of importing food and other essentials have faltered.

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • If you’re in a remote area, having superior internet infrastructure in place during a pandemic can be a big help – as the rural British village described in this report discovered recently. (The Conversation)
  • Researchers studying the theory that ancient Polynesians had contact with Native Americans thought this happened on Easter Island (Rapa Nui) – but a study published earlier this month suggests the first encounter happened further east. (Nature)
  • Some Alaskan communities accessible only by plane or snowmobile opted to actively cut themselves off from the outside world during COVID-19, rather than risk elders’ lives, according to this report. (ProPublica)
  • Alaska, the least densely populated state in America, gives residents the ability to vote absentee. But this analysis argues that a potential coronavirus-related spike in ballot requests prior to the presidential election calls for better preparation. (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)
  • Millions of people live in isolated Amazonian towns and villages only accessible by boat or plane, and they’ve had to face the pandemic while thousands of kilometres from the nearest intensive care unit, according to this report. (The Conversation)
  • Isolated populations can provide unique insights into human history and migration; scientists recently conducted a comprehensive genetic analysis of the inhabitants of Robinson Crusoe Island, a remote land mass off the Chilean coast thought to be the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel. (Frontiers)
  • The Falklands War remains a sore subject in Argentina, where a state-sponsored children’s cartoon exploring the conflict featured a musical number about British colonial aggression in Latin America. (War Is Boring)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to COVID-19, Travel and Tourism and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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