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Pacific Islands, Secretive Nations Among the Last COVID-Free Places

    2020-11-19

    The coronavirus has been confirmed on every continent except Antarctica and in almost every country. However, a small number of places have not yet confirmed a single case of infection. Some of these places may have truly been spared, while others may be hiding the truth.

    South Pacific

    Several small island nations in the South Pacific are among the places yet to report a single case of COVID-19, the disease the virus causes. They include Tonga, Kiribati, Samoa, Micronesia and Tuvalu. But these nations have still felt the pandemic’s effects.

    Tonga has kept the virus out by stopping cruise ships from arriving and closing its airport in March, says Paula Taumoepeau, president of Tonga’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He says the government also called for a lockdown, even though there were no known cases. These days, only people who have gotten a test showing they are disease-free are permitted to return on repatriation flights.

    “I think the government has done a good job keeping COVID away from Tonga, but it has had a big impact on businesses, especially tourism and accommodation. It’s very, very bad,” he said.

    The economies of many islands in the South Pacific depend on tourism. Unemployment across the area has risen sharply and economies have struggled since the start of the pandemic. Many places in the South Pacific are poor and have basic health systems that would not be prepared to deal with major outbreaks.

    Not everywhere in the South Pacific has been spared. Over the past two weeks, Vanuatu and the Marshall Islands reported their first cases, from quarantined travelers. Fiji and the Solomon Islands have each counted several cases, while Papua New Guinea has reported about 600 cases and seven deaths. French Polynesia has been hit especially hard, with more than 11,000 cases and 50 deaths.

    FILE - A foraging Emperor penguin preens on snow-covered sea ice around the base of the active volcano Mount Erebus, near McMurdo Station, the largest U.S. Science base in Antarctica, December 9, 2006. REUTERS/Deborah Zabarenko
    FILE - A foraging Emperor penguin preens on snow-covered sea ice around the base of the active volcano Mount Erebus, near McMurdo Station, the largest U.S. Science base in Antarctica, December 9, 2006. REUTERS/Deborah Zabarenko

    Antarctica

    Antarctica is the only continent that remains virus-free. People have worked hard to keep it that way. Any outbreak would be difficult to control in a place where people live in close areas and where medical services are limited.

    People who do get seriously sick on Antarctica usually must be evacuated. That process can take days or even weeks because of extreme weather conditions that delay flights.

    Most countries are reducing the number of scientists and other workers they send to Antarctica this summer in the Southern Hemisphere. But hundreds of people still have been arriving to make sure that long-term scientific programs continue to operate.

    Michelle Rogan-Finnemore is the executive secretary of the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs. She says people planning to travel to Antarctica usually get tested in their home countries before leaving and then quarantine for at least two weeks at their last stop before flying to Antarctica. Once there, she says, people are tested again. They are also required to remain socially distanced and wear face coverings.

    North Korea

    With a population of more than 25 million, North Korea is the largest nation yet to report a single case. However, most North Korea experts do not believe leader Kim Jong Un’s claim that the country is virus-free.

    North Korea says its anti-virus campaign is a matter of “national existence.” It has severely restricted cross-border traffic, banned tourists and flown out diplomats. Tens of thousands of health workers are monitoring locals and isolating those with signs of sickness.

    In September, North Korean troops shot and killed a South Korean government official who was found floating near the sea boundary. The North said its troops then burned the man’s flotation device in an effort to destroy any small amounts of virus.

    The North’s lockdown and its extreme anti-virus measures are believed to be harming its already struggling economy. But an outbreak could cause great damage in a country that lacks medical supplies and a modern healthcare system.

    Most experts believe North Korea has had at least some cases of COVID-19 because it shares a border with China, where smuggling activities are common. Some even believe the North may be in the middle of a major outbreak.

    Turkmenistan

    As with North Korea, there is major doubt about Turkmenistan’s claim of zero cases. Officials in the secretive Central Asian nation of 6 million people have rejected reports that they are hiding information about an outbreak. Health officials have still recommended that people wear masks and keep a distance of 2 meters from each other in public places.

    In March, Turkmenistan restricted travel in and out of the country and restricted large religious events. A World Health Organization group that visited Turkmenistan in July said the country should take stronger actions. The WHO recommended “activating critical public health measures” as if the virus was already spreading, the head of the group, Dr. Catherine Smallwood, said at the time.

    Smallwood did not directly comment on the truthfulness of Turkmenistan’s virus-free claims. Instead, she said, “reporting outbreaks sits firmly with the member state.”

    I’m Caty Weaver.

    And I'm Ashley Thompson.

    The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. Susan Shand was the editor.

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    Words in This Story

    spare - v. to not destroy or harm (something)

    pandemic - n. an occurrence in which a disease spreads very quickly and affects a large number of people over a wide area or throughout the world

    cruise - n. a journey on a boat or ship to a number of places as a vacation

    repatriation - n. the act of returning to one's own country

    impact - n. a powerful or major influence or effect

    tourism - n. the activity of traveling to a place for pleasure

    accommodation - n. a place (such as a room in a hotel) where travelers can sleep and find other services

    quarantine - n. the period of time during which a person or animal that has a disease or that might have a disease is kept away from others to prevent the disease from spreading

    outbreak - n. a sudden start or increase of fighting or disease

    evacuate - v. to remove (someone) from a dangerous place

    smuggling - n. the illegal movement of goods into or out of a country