By Paulina Villegas
The coronavirus pandemic continues to tear through Brazil, but one of its most stunning tourist destinations - the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha - is opening to travellers again. The catch: Visitors must prove they have been infected with the novel coronavirus.
Nestled in the south Atlantic, 220 miles off Brazil's northeast coast, the string of 21 islands and islets attracts throngs of local and international tourists each year, enchanted by the turquoise waters, golden-sand beaches and biodiversity. When the pandemic hit in March, the islands closed their doors to foreign visitors and implemented strict measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Fernando de Noronha, declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco, has now decided to gradually reopen to tourism, but only to those who can certify they have been infected with the virus and recovered.
Since the reopening began last week, officials on the eponymous main island have required visitors to show a positive antibody test, taken within 90 days before arrival, or a positive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, done with a nose and throat swab, from at least 20 days ahead of their trip.
Results from rapid coronavirus tests, which have had higher error rates, are not accepted, according to island officials.
The unorthodox strategy could lead to new outbreaks at the idyllic destination.
The islands have largely controlled the pandemic so far and have avoided deaths by enforcing strict rules - a sharp contrast with the rest of Brazil. There is also the risk of recovered patients contracting the virus on the islands and spreading it elsewhere in the country.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has contracted the coronavirus himself, has repeatedly downplayed the health risks posed by the coronavirus, even as cases and deaths have swept the country. The country now has one of the worst outbreaks in the world: more than 126 000 dead and 4.1 million infected.
In this context, the price of the experiment might prove too high. But local authorities have argued that the unconventional approach is based on science and thus is the safest way to allow for economic recovery without putting the island at risk.
Health experts have explicitly warned that antibodies do not definitely guarantee immunity. Recent cases of reinfection in Hong Kong, the United States and Europe add to the mixed evidence and divided expert opinions about potential immunity.
Noronha's officials say they are following strict measures to protect the population and opening gradually to avoid infections. They are also keeping social distancing rules and safety measures in place.
Face masks will be mandatory in public spaces, and beach access will be limited to groups of 10 people. Still, most restrictions on businesses have been lifted: Restaurants and bars are open with limited capacity, and sports and religious celebrations are now allowed.
Guilherme Rocha, the island's administrator, said in a statement that officials are beginning the flexible reopening of Noronha's tourist economy "always with responsibility, caution and without haste."
"We care for the lives of people in the Noronha community who have been fighting, sacrificing, surviving and respecting all the rules since the beginning of the pandemic," Rocha said. "And so we will continue. We cannot do everything at the same time, but we can be flexible, respecting the protocols and resuming the routine, but this time with the new normal."
As in many tourism-dependent economies affected by the pandemic, residents of Fernando de Noronha have had to weigh their health and financial well-being. The recent decision to allow tourists who have recovered from the virus on the islands has divided residents.
A demonstration took place on the island on Tuesday against the limited reopening, O Globo reported. Others are left confused and worried about the health hazards that outsiders may bring, and the limited hospital infrastructure available to deal with an outbreak.
Michele Roth, a photographer who has been living on Fernando de Noronha for 16 years, admitted feeling uneasy ever since the island's reopening was announced.
"It is a way for the government to restart the economy even if there is no solid scientific evidence that people who have recovered will not spread the virus again," Roth told The Washington Post. "Everybody is questioning it and debating, but the truth is this is all new to us and we do not know how to be really protected from the virus." The first tourists arrived on the island Saturday.
"I feel very strange and afraid about it. I don't know why they did this, especially when the rest of the world did the opposite," said Douglas Monteiro, a scuba diving instructor who has lived on the island for over a decade, and who has struggled financially because of the pandemic.
"We all want our lives to restart, but this is probably not a good idea, considering Brazil is not safe for anybody and there is no guarantee that this is safe," Monteiro told The Post.