Isolation Helped These Islands Delay a COVID-19 Outbreak. Now, Being Remote Could be Their Biggest Problem
When it comes to riding out a pandemic, Pebble Island is a pretty safe place to be. Part of the remote Falklands archipelago in the south Atlantic, Pebble is home to just two families — with a total population of six — says Riki Evans, owner of the Pebble Island Lodge. With none of them displaying symptoms of COVID-19 and travel between the Falkland Islands now heavily restricted, Evans says they’re not worried about the isolation of the months ahead. “It doesn’t make much difference to us. We’re used to being out here on our own. And we’re safe.”
In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, isolation has been a boon to the Falkland Islands, the overseas British territory 400 miles off the coast of Argentina. The windswept archipelago — consisting of two main islands, and over 700 smaller islands — is famous for the 10-week war the two countries fought over possession of it in 1982, and for the tens of thousands of penguins that live there. Thanks to its remoteness, the community of a little over 3,000 people has managed to stay well behind the steep trajectories that other countries’ outbreaks have followed; officials estimate that the Falklands are lagging three or four weeks behind the U.K.
But the islanders know that in the event of a large outbreak, isolation could become their biggest problem. Almost a sixth of the islands’ inhabitants are considered high risk, because they’re elderly or have underlying health conditions. While there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Falklands, officials confirmed Thursday that a child is critically ill with a suspected case. There are no facilities to test for the virus on the Falklands, and it takes around 10 days to get test results back from Britain, which is almost 8,000 miles away. Travel disruption has affected Falklanders who regularly go to the U.K. for medical purposes or education. And Chile and Uruguay, which normally take in emergency medical evacuations from the Falklands, have restricted entry for foreigners, meaning all health issues must be treated at the well-resourced but small local hospital in Stanley, the small-town capital. The islands, which import almost everything other than meat, wool and fish, could also be vulnerable to global supply chain shocks.
The Falklands government has moved quickly this week to implement social distancing measures, telling schools and daycares to close and asking everyone but non-essential workers to stay home. The most vulnerable have been asked to stay in their homes for 12 weeks. Travel between the islands, which make up an area almost the size of Connecticut, is now heavily restricted. And anyone arriving in the Falklands from elsewhere must self-quarantine for 14 days.