Covid-19…in the Arctic

When Canada declared that Covid-19 was indeed a pandemic, and the Country went into lock down on March 17th, Nunavut went into lockdown too. Schools, offices, restaurants, bars, playgrounds, everything was off limits, just like southern Canada, even though there was no Covid-19 here.

I gathered the things I would need from my office and brought it all home. Computer, monitor, cables, printer, even my work internet modem. With a very small apartment, and teens sharing a room, I had to rearrange the entire apartment, to allow for them to each have their own room (in this extended ‘being home’ time) and set up a home office. We made it work.

By March 23rd, Nunavut Territory set up the strictest travel restrictions in Canada and there was a lot of support from the community. No one can enter Nunavut without isolating in for designated hotel in connected Southern cities that fly to Nunavut.
No matter who you are, if you are a visitor or if you are a worker coming from the south or if you are a resident of Nunavut, you have to self-isolated in the hotel for 14 days with someone guarding your every move. You are not permitted to leave the hotel, you are not permitted to go shopping, you are not permitted to go for long walks and your meals are provided. If you have gone outside of the hotel for any reason your isolation starts over again and the Government of Nunavut is in some circumstances paying for these hotels.

“We will be monitoring, with security guards, those who will be placed in these regional centres, to ensure that they do not break quarantine,” said Nunavut Health Minister George Hickes.

In Iqaluit, we all knew (and still know) that having the virus come to Nunavut could have catastrophic effects on the limited Health Care system here and on the Inuit population. Families here remember all too well what happened with the devastating Turberculosis Outbreak in the 1940’s to the 1960’s when thousands (one-seventh) of Inuit died. Nearly half of the Eastern Arctic Inuit population was sent south to Hamilton (and other cities, even Halifax, NS) for tuberculosis treatment. Many never returned.

Nearly half of the Eastern Arctic Inuit population was sent south to Hamilton for tuberculosis treatment between 1953 and 1961. (Gerda Selway)

Nunavut took immediate, extreme precautions, knowing that its 25 fly-in only communities receive health services through 24 community health centres and one Hospital in the Territories capital of Iqaluit, and although there are many great nurses, nurse practitioners and doctors in the Arctic, the Health care system here, is not without many problems! The Qikiqtani General Hospital in Iqaluit has 23 beds, (4 maternity, 6 pediatric and 13 medical/surgical) to service 39, 000 people.
If there was a Covid-19 outbreak in Nunavut, many people would not be provided with adequate health care. Many people would die.   

The Qikiqtani General Hospital in Iqaluit has 23 beds.

In addition to the lack of Health Care playing a role in the Covid-19 Pandemic in Nunavut, the lack of housing is also a factor. It is no secret that the territory has a housing shortage. My kids and I were homeless here for 6 weeks, couch surfing and house sitting until our very small, very expensive apartment became available. I snatched it up without hesitation. Many Inuit families live in small homes with extended family. It’s not uncommon to know families that have 3-4 generations living in 1 small home. With elderly grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren living under one roof, with no where else to go, if someone in the household were to get ill with a highly contagious virus, I can’t see how anyone would be safe from the virus.  
In Iqaluit for the past several weeks, although there is no Covid-19 here, we acted the same as every other city in Canada with plexi-glass around cashiers, with designated floor markers to enforce social distancing and it’s common to see people wearing masks. We followed the news, we paid attention and we listened, we had to stay in our homes and did not gather with anyone outside of our own households.
This month, Nunavut Territory is cautiously re-opening. We were able to go back to our offices on June 8th, and gather inside in groups of 5, and outside in groups of 25. With day cares and playgrounds opening first, this week we were given the news of a travel bubble with the Northwest Territories, our bars and restaurants can re-open on June 21st and day camps and youth centres may open again on June 29th.
It is my hope that our strict restrictions will protect Nunavummiut from the virus. We have been practicing social distancing, we have masks, and I have every faith in our Health Minister to shut down again, if the Covid-19 virus does indeed reach Nunavut.

My friends were quick to take advantage of an outside Birthday gathering and we enjoyed a fire under the midnight daylight!

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