Global Charity Cyclists Parked in Paradise by Covid-19

British couple cycling across the world for Prevent Breast Cancer find themselves and their fundraising marooned

By: Joyce Chen

A back-to-basics retreat to a sunny Thai island sounds like an idyllic break. For Christopher O’Hare and Gabriella Gatrix, however, it is the longest pit-stop they have taken since setting out from The Nightingale Center in Manchester, England two years ago.

As hardy adventurers, their goal was to cycle more than 100,000 km across all seven continents to raise awareness for the charity Prevent Breast Cancer. Now, with the sudden clampdown on borders due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the couple has instead found themselves on tiny Phi Phi Island in Southern Thailand, where the only other inhabitants are a family of around 30 sea gypsies.

They have had to provide for themselves, fishing from the sea and fetching freshwater from the sea gypsies’ wells, then sleeping in a tent inside a cave at night. Nonetheless, the couple have adapted quickly, stating that “We are both very well, and in a safe area living from our tent on the beach, we are able to find fresh fruit and catch fish, we will be staying here until the situation improves and borders open.”

Thai authorities announced at the end of April that the emergency decree and nationwide lockdown that was scheduled to end on April 30 would be extended until May 31, with a nightly curfew in place and interprovincial travel remaining limited.

 It isn’t just Chris and Gabs who are stranded. Others – millions of refugees, for instance, have found themselves marooned in far worse conditions. At the other end of the spectrum is a former strategist with an international investment bank, who prefers not to be named, but who has been trapped in a luxury resort in Bali since January 24. He and his wife are the only guests. The resort staff cater only to them. They can’t leave until the airport at Denpasar opens – on June 16. His biggest problem, he says, is trying to get in his daily swim before it clouds up. Chris and Gabs, on the other hand, have to swim for fish for their dinner.

But the cause for which they have already cycled 21,300 km across 27 countries, Prevent Breast Cancer, is in jeopardy due to the coronavirus crisis. With a quarter of the UK workforce furloughed, what little money people can afford to spare on donations overwhelmingly goes to COVID Emergency Response causes.

Furthermore, most fundraising events will be put on hold so long as social distancing rules are in place. These include galas, marathons, concerts and more, which are the main source of donations for many small charities. Prevent Breast Cancer has previously raised over £1million towards the prediction and prevention of breast cancer via events such as cycling, running, and walking to Everest Base Camp, but indefinitely can no longer organize such fundraisers.

The UK is nearly reaching a tipping point where the inadvertent deaths and economic turmoil caused by lockdown may outweigh the theoretical damage should restrictions be lifted. Cancer patients, in particular, have been hit hard by the crisis, as patients are less likely to go in for routine check-ups or treatment for fear of contracting the virus at a hospital.

Prevent Breast Cancer’s motto is “Predict – Prevent – Protect”, as early detection is crucial to reduce the fatal risk of cancer. However, Chris says that recently ‘women are afraid to visit their breast clinic… even when they have early signs of breast cancer’. As Gabs only discovered that she had breast cancer from a preventive consultation, the couple is extremely concerned about the lack of check-ups leading to fewer early diagnoses.

With so many cancer patients at risk, Chris and Gabs are frustrated that ‘over the past few months we haven’t received any new donations’, but vow that ‘we shall continue, no matter how difficult, as just flying the flag can save lives – we’ve had some ladies tell us that they found a lump in their breast, but weren’t going to do anything about it until they read out website… they then got referred to a breast clinic and caught it early! Even if we save only one life, it’s worth it.’

Once neighboring borders reopen, Chris and Gabs plan to continue on through Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Even if they manage to complete their journey in the originally planned seven years, the pandemic may drastically decrease the funds for such life-saving charity-work. Chris worries that ‘this amazing charity, the only charity in the UK whose main focus is the prevention of breast cancer, will no longer exist because of the coronavirus. This is a charity that has saved Gabriella’s life and many, many more.’ His words serve as a stark reminder of the unseen victims of the coronavirus.

Please donate to Prevent Breast Cancer here to fund crucial research into breast cancer and support Chris and Gabs’ incredible world cycling tour, which you can follow here.

Joyce Chen is an Asia Sentinel intern