The city of Iulissat with stranded icebergs in the background, Greenland

The impact of Covid-19 on Inuit communities

16 July 2020
Interview with Dalee Sambo Dorough, Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council

How are Inuit communities affected by the coronavirus pandemic?

From a broad international perspective, as the Chair of ICC, I have been monitoring the Covid-19 impacts within our membership communities from Chukotka to Eastern Greenland. Although to date there have been 56 cases in the Chukotka Okrug of the Russian Federation, none of the Siberian Yupik, who are members of ICC, have contracted the virus. In Alaska, in geographical terms, we now have five cases in the Southwest, which is the home region of our Yup’ik membership, and five cases in Nome. In addition, we now have four cases Northwest Alaska and two in the North Slope, both regions are above the Arctic Circle. This is distressing news because leadership has been taking active measures to contain the virus within our communities. In Canada, as reported by the national Inuit organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), “there are currently no confirmed active cases of COVID-19 within Inuit Nunangat.” In Greenland, there were 13 active cases but all 13 have recovered.

I really do believe that it is because of the decisive, early action of Inuit community leadership that we have been able to contain and exert greater control over the spread of the virus. It is my hope that the leadership continues in this fashion and that they are very smart about the travel to and from communities to maintain these very low case numbers. My greatest fear is that if restrictions are eased in some areas – especially where there is growing pressure in the south to do so – we will have dramatically different and increased numbers.


How are Inuit informed about the pandemic and measures?

In Alaska, each of the different regional health organizations have been keeping their websites up to date. They have also been issuing advisories for those within their regions and communities. This is important, especially in places where Inuit dialects are critical for getting the messaging out. These regional Inuit organizations are taking steps to translate available information for their membership, including work by one of our own Executive Council Members.

For Canada, ITK has been preparing weekly updates about the impacts, which not only reflect national but also international and regional information. So, our regional and national institutions are taking the initiative to keep communities informed and safe. Inuit organizations are, by and for themselves, undertaking similar initiatives, recognizing the critical element of Inuit language, which is important to ensure that such advisories are understood and taken at the community and individual level.


Are there health issues and/or other factors that could influence the susceptibility of Inuit?

We are facing infrastructure deficits and I found it very interesting that the chief medical officer for the State of Alaska referred to the fact that not everybody has access to a health aid in rural communities during an online conference on Covid-19 in the Arctic that was sponsored by the Wilson Center, the Naval War College and the US Arctic Research Commission. This is an example of lack of funding to support effective and comprehensive training for health personnel – not just in the face of the pandemic, but also regarding health issues within communities generally. This lack of access to trained health aides is a huge deficit for many of our communities in Alaska. There is not only a deficit in terms of human resources, but also in terms of hardware, such as Personal Protective Equipment and other resources. Such personnel and hardware, like actual health clinics, are key elements to monitoring and containing the virus and many other health related matters at the community level.
Small communities continue to face a host of infrastructure gaps like overcrowding in housing. How do you actually go into quarantine when you live in a single household with eight or more people? And, clearly, we are not speaking about homes with many rooms where an individual can quarantine easily. The specific issues of overcrowding are being revealed in an acute way and it is important to underscore that this reality is a major contributing factor to the potential for real exposure, risk and devastation. This is one element among the many other aspects of infrastructure deficit, from health clinics to potable water to lack of Internet to name a few.


How are Inuit communities affected by the national measures taken to contain the coronavirus?

There are upsides and downsides to some of the measures. Probably the most interesting manifestation has been in air travel. One of the airlines servicing many of our communities, Ravn Air, has filed for bankruptcy because of restrictions on travel. Historically, they have served over 100 communities in rural Alaska. The fact that there are no roads to many of our communities on one hand brings advantages, and on the other hand, there are major disadvantages. Although we need goods and services to arrive by air travel or by barge, the obvious down side is that any interaction in relation to air travel and coming barge service is a potential crack in the system, allowing the virus to be introduced. This is why the actions taken by local communities to police activities and quarantine incoming individuals are so important. For Inuit owned airlines in Canada, such as Air Inuit, the impacts have been devastating, including loss of employment for many. I believe that they, too, are seeking assistance to stay afloat financially in order to provide essential goods and services to Inuit communities.

In the course of the discussion during the Covid-19 in the Arctic conference panel I was involved in, there was mention of “essential” activities and one person referred to wildlife regulators. In my mind, it is essential for Inuit to continue hunting, harvesting and fishing in the ways they always have, which has contributed to good physical and mental health. It must be understood that wildlife regulators may pose a potential threat because they are coming in from outside the community and their mandate is a bit problematic – if you think of the subjective understanding of what is “essential” and what is not. An Inuit cultural context should be employed in the use of this terminology – our hunting, fishing and other harvesting is essential. My hope is that when we look at the impacts of the virus that this is an important element that has to be taken into consideration in terms of Inuit food security and food sovereignty and the idea of what is regarded as essential for a culture and a community.

Another dimension that was brought up throughout the conference was the economic impacts and commercial activities. Again, Inuit hunting, fishing and harvesting should be deemed as “essential” in the context of this pandemic, in order to maintain good health and well-being. This has to be taken seriously by government and others, especially in light of the increased number of Covid-19 cases confirmed within the seafood industry in Alaska.


Have Inuit communities taken any measures in addition to national/regional measures to contain the outbreak?

Yes, they have. Some communities have restricted travel themselves. In the context of the right for self-determination, leadership has determined that they will take measures at the local level, because they know and understand what is most effective and meaningful.

In addition, leaders are not only maintaining the public health advisories that we are receiving from the state and federal agencies, but also adapting them for purposes that are relevant to our communities. For example, in the recent online conference about Covid-19 in the Arctic, the Village Council President from Igiugig in the Bristol Bay region, Alaska, spoke about the measures that they have taken related to incoming cargo flights. For many of our rural and remote communities, an arriving flight is a big activity – historically and presently. In her community, they have instituted ways to minimize social gathering, insisting on social distancing and establishing safe ways to congregate when a flight comes in.

I was also impressed by statements provided by the North Slope Science Liaison about what communities historically did to safeguard themselves. He referred to the oral history from Shishmaref in the context of the 1918 Spanish Flu. He recited a story wherein Elders or leaders in the community constructed watch towers and were told to shoot any incoming intruders, when they learned about a deadly disease and the potential for big risks for the community. This community remained unaffected compared to a nearby community that was nearly decimated because they did not take such strong decisive actions. The Science Liaison referred to this as an important measure for safeguarding the community. To a large extent, though not as harsh, it reflects the action of our leadership today.


Are there examples of community resilience that have helped in this situation?

The messaging of the oral history and the knowledge being passed down from generation to generation is quite significant in terms of how individuals and communities are seeing this pandemic as a serious threat. Also, hunting, fishing and harvesting activities are a huge dimension of resilience and adaptation – maintaining cultural integrity in the face of adversity.
Relating to communications, I think it is an important feature when our communities at the local level can easily and quickly communicate and be responsive to the conditions. The level of respect for and recognition of social and political protocol and leadership lends itself to important dynamics of collective response and individual response.


Could you describe the health facilities Inuit communities have access to and how far away they are from communities?

In the case of Alaska, if there is a health clinic and a health aid it would be right in the community, but for an individual that needs “serious” care, such as respirators and other medical equipment to address their needs, they need to be flown from their village into a regional hub and onward to an urban community like Fairbanks or Anchorage. The term “serious” needs to be understood subjectively and in relation to the conditions in our communities. Getting someone from Southwest Alaska to a major hospital, we are talking about hundreds of miles. The regional hubs have hospitals, but they do not have the same level of personnel, extensive medical equipment, and services that one would find in the major urban areas. This is another clear example of the deficits that we face.


How do you think the current pandemic can impact future actions?

We have an extraordinary opportunity to review Inuit responses, practices and examples that have arisen in the context of the current crisis. So, if we look at the reactions and response of Inuit communities, there are some important lessons that can be learned. Every little step and action taken; these examples can be instructive for the future. Thankfully, Inuit response has been decisive, early and collective. The low numbers that we are seeing of Covid-19 in the Arctic are due to the early action by our people. These examples can be helpful to many others, both Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous communities. Quyanaq.