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Conflict Resolution in the Time of COVID-19–Voices from Seven Continents of the World: Antarctica

Editor’s Note:  In this article series, seven leading mediators and conflict resolution practitioners share their unique voices on three pressing issues:  the impact of COVID-19 on their practices, workarounds being attempted, and their visions for the future in a post-COVID (or on-going COVID) world.  These contributors are speaking for themselves with their own original thoughts.  Their compelling words come from both their heads and their hearts.  Each essay is unique, yet each essay also confirms universal experiences and travails.  Oddly, collective challenges and painful experiences may stimulate progression within the conflict resolution community.  They may also lead to mediators taking action to familiarize the general community with the benefits of mediation.  Sharing personal experiences and truths, it is hoped, will inspire fellow practitioners to consider the new world and to re-invent their conflict resolution practices and services. 


The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in widespread court closures and limited operations, promoting ADR suddenly and squarely into the forefront as the primary method of conflict resolution.  Perhaps the modern “conflict revolution,”[i] beginning in 1976 with community dispute resolution programs in the 1960’s to address civil rights issues and continuing with the 1976 Pound Conference,[ii] is about to undergo another phase.  If conflict resolution practitioners step up to the challenges, ADR may well come to the fore in the minds of the general public and not only with lawyers, insurance companies and commercial enterprises.  This may require re-thinking of old paradigms and becoming unstuck from old notions.  Mediators and conflict resolution professionals are being asked to adapt–and quickly–to the issues and circumstances of the day. The seven contributors bravely take a giant step forward by providing a chronicle of current conditions and by offering visions of the future.

~ Articles Assembled and Edited by Gregg Relyea



In this time of plague, there is a renewed sense of the value of connection and cooperation.

When the South Pole is a closer neighbor than the head office in Christchurch, where I reside, you know you are in a remote and isolated place. In the world of COVID-19, being remote and isolated is now seen as a good thing. And Scott Base, my home for 9 months, is certainly a good thing. Scott Base is New Zealand’s outpost on the great southern continent of Antarctica. Now, by chance, 11 of us will be spending the winter months together in the only place that remains free of the virus. As individuals, the 11 of us all have unique skills that are required to maintain the base, support the science and prepare for the summer season. As a team, we are dependent on everyone’s skills for our safety and wellbeing during winter. Antarctica has long been an analogue for space missions. How do you successfully integrate wellbeing, team dynamics and productivity? Antarctica provides an ideal study arena to assess the human responses to living in an extreme environment, in isolation and in small communities. 

Compared to the days of Scott and Shackleton, we are fortunate to have great communications to the outside world. Now though, we see in real time the reaction to the pandemic sweeping across world. It is with a sense of disbelief as we watch the cases mount and countries go into lockdown. In the months leading up to my departure, people asked about how I would cope, how I would feel being away from people and what I would miss. It’s easy to find pat answers to these questions, but harder to really think through and prepare yourself. The reality is that you don’t truly know until you are in the middle of it. In a topsy turvy moment, I now find myself asking the same questions to family and friends now socially distancing and self-isolating. While I have thought about, prepared and finally arrived in Antarctica, those same family members and friends have been thrust into a strange and unfamiliar situation not of their choosing.

 COVID-19 has become a double-edged sword, cutting like a scythe through both our home and work lives. Fear enters the emotional lexicon as we think of elderly relatives. Daily phone calls, video links and photo messages assuage the separation and help to maintain the connection home. The missed birthdays and family gatherings are already hard, but the sense of not being able to physically help those at home, especially at this time, is the hardest. There is a rising inner turmoil between the somewhat selfish desire of having chosen the Antarctic experience and the seeming abandonment of nearest and dearest to COVID-19. 

ANZAC day on April 25th was a moment of solidarity where we reflected on the sacrifices of those in the service of their country. It was a reminder of the courage and endurance of a previous generation during a time of conflict. Our service, also attended by our American colleagues from McMurdo base, was only possible because many people had worked hard to keep Antarctica free of the virus. The address talked about hope and optimism in this, our own time of need. To look forward to better times where we could come together and share once again. Finding a common purpose and the right narrative is important for cooperation and defusing tension. At this time, the communication back to the Christchurch office has become more frequent and deliberate. Their changed circumstances meaning that a winterized Antarctic base becomes the epitome of sophisticated mingling and socialization. We are in a reverse empathy equation, providing comfort and support to those back home who are now even more isolated than we are.  It means we have had to develop a new understanding of what it means to be “at home.”

Fortuitously, COVID-19 has struck at the beginning of the winter season when the base team can sit tight and the office moves into planning mode. Technology has enabled home working that surprised many with how effective it was. Zoom conferencing has given us the face-to-face connection and insights into everyone’s personal space. The electronic background hints at hobbies, interests and other lives. It has personalized the connection, moving people along from colleague to partner in work. It reinforces the team dynamic of gaining strength through adversity. Zoom fatigue is the corollary when natural breaks are missed, the work is all done behind a screen and the pressure valve of spontaneous humor in the coffee room is a distant memory.

In Antarctica, motivation, openness and tolerance has always been needed to live and work together, more so during the long dark months of the winter. The weather and darkness will conspire to keep everyone on base and we lose opportunities for walking, skiing and undergo numerous seasonal changes. The physical hibernation can lead to a mental fugue, ripe for dissatisfaction and anger. Acceptance and stoicism could be seen as a lack of imagination and a trait of successful overwinterers. I would argue that it is the richness of the imagination that sets them apart. It is important to keep a sense of curiosity, of humor and find joy in small things. To be at peace with the passage of time and have your fill of the opportunities presented.

COVID-19 has delivered a moment of reckoning, where the old paradigms have fallen short. It may just have taught us the value of human endeavor, connection and cooperation, three things that, upon reflection, made me apply for a job in Antarctica in the first place.


Gregg Relyea

Gregg Relyea, Esq. is a full-time private mediator in San Diego, California.  In addition to teaching mediation at the University of San Diego School of Law and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), Mr. Relyea has written a comprehensive negotiation and mediation practice guide, Negotiation, Mediation, and Dispute Resolution--Core Skills… MORE >


Rory O'Connor

Dr. Rory O'Connor is an experienced remote area physician who has provided health leadership and direction across many international oil and gas operations. He has steered the executive level debate on all health related matters including the previous pandemic scenario of H1N1, mental well-being, offshore and integrated emergency response. Key… MORE >

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