While this year Australians have been forced to stay in their homes during lockdowns, some have been blissfully unaware living in a COVID-free bubble at a remote outpost.
Almost 90 people stationed in Antarctica are bracing for a whole new world as they prepare to return from their expeditions to places like Melbourne, where people are only allowed a limited time to exercise each day and wearing masks is mandatory.
Maree Riley, organisational psychologist at the Australian Antarctic Division, is now trying to help those returning understand just how much life has changed and warning them of the struggle to readjust.
When about 25 people working at Davis Station left Australia last October, people were planning overseas trips, nightlife was well alive and cities were bustling.
But fast-forward almost 12 months and people are dying of a new deadly disease, others are forced apart from loved ones and thousands are losing jobs.
As those 25 people were preparing to return home this October, their expedition has now been extended by about three-and-a-half months to 2021 due to coronavirus. Ms Riley has already started bracing them for what’s to come.
“We routinely provide support to expeditioners coming home after a period of time. There is usually an adjustment but this year is quite different,” she told Yahoo News Australia.
“When many of them left, COVID-19 wasn’t even part of the vocabulary and this has all happened while they’ve been away. They are coming back to a very different world they left.”
Ms Riley said while those in Antarctica intellectually understood what was happening through the media, it is a different thing altogether to actually experience it.
“When they come home to a world we are familiar with now – we social distance, we don’t hug, we work from home and wear masks – it will be an abrupt adjustment,” she said.
“While we’ve been social distancing, they’ve been gathering in groups for meals and social activities so we need to do some work to help prepare them psychologically, and are practically looking at doing things on stations like activities to give them some exposure to social distancing and wearing masks.”
Melbourne’s ghost town revealed to Antarctic expeditioners
Ms Riley added she was showing expeditioners video footage of what it’s like to walk into a supermarket, of Melbourne’s ghost town CBD and of deserted airports.
“We walk them through it so they understand what the reality is like rather than just getting off a plane or a ship and seeing this whole new world,” she said.
“If they weren’t prepared for what they were coming home to there’d be that shock of where they fit in the world. It would impact on their adjustment and time it would take to integrate.
“Coronavirus is not a shared experience they’ve had with family and friends and they don’t truly understand the impact it has had on them. They don’t know these rules and they have to learn even things like not being able to hug people.”
Excluded from the Covid experience
Ms Riley said people at the stations in Antarctica were concerned by coronavirus and not being able to support family and friends.
They are also worried about how they will fit back in, with it usually taking people returning from Antarctica at least three months to readjust and integrate back into normal life.
“Seeing what the job market is like, there are concerns about the ability to find work and they’ll want to come back and travel, it’s what a lot of them do when they come home, but they can’t do that now,” she said.
“It’s a whole reshaping of what happens when they come home.”
Ms Riley said so few people on the planet had no direct impact of coronavirus, and expeditioners in Antarctica were in the small minority.
“They’ve missed out on a pretty historical event and when they do come home and people are talking about their experience and what it was like during COVID-19 lockdown, it’s hard for them to understand what that experience is like.”
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