December 5, 2023

A PhD candidate from the University of Waterloo is one of 26 researchers on lockdown in a Peru hotel after the country closed its borders to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Tasha-Leigh Gauthier, 26, was part of a multi-national group studying the effects of climate change and fire on plants when things turned for the worse early last week.

“There is a lot of trying to keep on top of communication,” Gauthier told Spoke via video conference Monday from a hotel in Cusco.

The Faculty of Environment student is now trying to find a way home.

Gauthier arrived with the group — originally composed of 45 students and faculty from 17 different countries — in early March.

At the time, only one case of the coronavirus had been confirmed in the South American nation and no travel advisories had been issued.

But on March 15, while the group was conducting fieldwork in a wilderness area, the Peruvian government announced a state of emergency.  

The borders were to be closed by midnight the next day and all commercial air travel was to stop.

“We had little warning,” said Sean Michaletz, an assistant professor of ecology at the University of British Columbia, who is stranded in Peru with Gauthier.

Gauthier said they packed up their mobile lab in about a half an hour, then hopped into vans headed for Cusco.

The plan was to drop off members who already had plane tickets at the town’s airport before the borders closed. The remaining researchers, including Gauthier and Michaletz, would wait at the hotel for further instruction from their respective governments.

The “harrowing” nighttime trip across the Andes took them along a treacherous single-track dirt road, through police checkpoints, all with drivers had been awake for close to 24 hours.

Eighteen of the original 45 boarded planes before the deadline.

The rest of the group, minus one who was able to leave a few days ago, is now on day eight of a country-wide 15-day quarantine.

They are safe, well-fed and continue to work and study remotely, but they also face several challenges, including a strict curfew and a pervasive police presence.

They are only allowed outside of the hotel to shop for food or visit pharmacies.

“It’s a bit like being in a minimum security prison,” said Michaletz. “Our challenges are not unique, but they are real.”

The CBC reported earlier this week that there may be over 1,000 Canadians currently stranded in Peru, but help is on the way for some.

On Monday morning, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs said he secured authorization for three flights to pick up stranded travellers in Peru, but no exact date was set.

Gauthier and Michaletz said they were aware of the effort, but still do not know when or where a plane will come for them.

And they are not the only ones waiting in Cusco. There are four Canadians in total in the research group — two citizens and two permanent residents — as well as a handful of tourists who are staying at the same hotel.

To combat boredom and remain productive, members of the group have taken on different roles. A researcher from Argentina provides yoga lessons, a Spanish member and an American have taken over nursing duties, while others, like Guathier, handle evacuation logistics.

With their coursework now complete, they are also starting up impromptu lectures to learn from one another. Movie nights are also on the docket, to keep a sense of normalcy, even if the internet is spotty.

They have been documenting their experience on Twitter under the hashtags #quarantrait and #cienciaencuarentena.

“We are not victims,” said Michaletz. “This is something that comes with the kind of work we do.”

Given the diverse nature of their group, Michaletz says they see themselves as a metaphor both for the global nature of the pandemic and the collaborative nature of science.

“We’re very fortunate in that our work takes us to the far reaches of the planet,” said Michaletz, “but because of that our work entails a little bit of risk.”

The pair say they have been very happy with the support they’ve received from their universities and a growing number of contacts on social media during a time of extreme stress. They have also been in frequent contact with the Canadian embassy in Peru and other Canadian officials.

Gauthier and Michaletz said the group will be able to stay in the hotel so long as it stays open. But if it closes, they are not sure what will come next.

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