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'The only almost germ-free continent left': Pandemics and purity in cultural perceptions of Antarctica

journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-21, 11:41 authored by Elizabeth LeaneElizabeth Leane, Lavery, C, Nash, M
This paper examines the role of pandemics and viruses in cultural perceptions of Antarctica over the past century. In the popular imagination, Antarctica has often been framed as a place of purity, refuge and isolation. In a series of fiction and screen texts from the nineteenth century to the present, viruses feature prominently. The texts fall into two categories: narratives in which Antarctica is the sole source of safety in a pandemic-ravaged world, and those in which a virus (or another form of contagion) is discovered within the continent itself and needs to be contained. Viruses in these texts are not only literal but also metaphorical, taking the form of any kind of threatening infection, and as such are linked to texts in which Antarctic purity is discursively connected to racial and gendered exclusivity. Based on this comparison, we argue that ideas of containment and contagion can have political connotations in an Antarctic context, to the extent that they are applied to particular groups of people in order to position them as ‘alien’ to the Antarctic environment. We show that the recent media construction of Antarctica during COVID-19 needs to be understood against this disturbing aspect of the Antarctic imaginary, and also that narratives of Antarctic purity are imaginatively linked to both geopolitical exclusions and the melting of Antarctic ice.


Publication title

Environmental Humanities








School of Humanities


Springer Cham

Place of publication


Repository Status

  • Restricted

Socio-economic Objectives

Literature; The media

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