Even Remote Galapagos Islands Couldn’t Escape COVID-19

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Seal parked outside closed hotel


SAN CRISTOBAL, Ecuador (AP) — Before the coronavirus, sudden life-threatening ailments among tourists, fishermen and others on the Galapagos Islands were considered so rare that hospitals didn’t have a single intensive care unit bed.

Now, officials are racing to equip medical teams on the remote islands with breathing machines while also trying to stanch an economic crisis that has left many of the 30,000 residents jobless.

The island chain’s famous isolation is now heightening its hardship.

For seven weeks now, not a single tourist has arrived at the UNESCO World Heritage site that inspired Charles Darwin. Studies of the archipelago’s unique marine and avian wildlife have halted. And residents are making urgent changes, like growing carrots, peppers and tomatoes at home so they don’t go hungry.

“Galapagos is the land of evolution,” said Joseline Cardoso, whose small family-run hotel on Santa Cruz island is empty. “The animals have adapted and we humans cannot be the exception.”

Ecuador is among Latin American nations hit hardest by COVID-19, and authorities on the Galapagos Islands believe their first cases probably came from Guayaquil, the coastal city where hospitals turned away patients and the dead were left in homes for days.

The storied islands have been relatively shielded by what happens 600 miles away on the mainland. A financial crisis two decades ago left many Ecuadorians penniless but steady international tourism kept the Galapagos afloat. Last year, over 275,000 people came to see the swimming iguanas, giant tortoises and birds with webbed feet the color of blue cotton candy.

Islanders rely on military aircraft to ferry the critically ill to Quito or Guayaquil. Many go to the mainland for appointments, and some hire doctors to fly in for major events like childbirth.

Locals like to joke that, “In the Galapagos, it is prohibited to get sick.”

But the coronavirus has upended any sense of island immunity.

The islands’ first four cases were diagnosed in late March, all believed to have come from Guayaquil before travel was cut off. Soon after, the first island-associated death was announced: a worker in his 60s who had been on the Celebrity Flora yacht and fell ill after returning to Quito.

There are now 107 cases in the Galapagos, including about 50 crew members still aboard the Celebrity Flora, a luxury ship operated by a subsidiary of Royal Caribbean Cruises. It docked in time for passengers to get flights home.

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