Reindeer jewelry

The impact of Covid-19 on Saami communities

16 July 2020
Interview with Christina Henriksen, President of the Saami Council

How are Saami communities affected by the coronavirus pandemic?

Sápmi covers the geographical area of reindeer husbandry in Norway and Sweden, the Saami administrative area in Finland and great parts of the Kola Peninsula in northwest Russia. Finland and Norway both imposed a lockdown in mid-March. Sweden remained open but provided strong advice on how to limit the virus. So far, there have been few COVID-19 cases in the Saami area. Except in Russia, and Norrbotten in Sweden. Thus, there is relatively little experience of the disease in Sápmi and we have yet to test the health service and infrastructure when put under pressure of an outbreak peak. One can say that the lockdown has reduced the spread of the virus, and in Sápmi, the peak is avoided during the most challenging weather conditions during winter.

How are Saami communities informed about the pandemic and measures taken to tackle it?

The national media is the main source of information for many. General advice on COVID-19 and how to tackle it has been translated to several Saami languages and made available in media, including Saami media, and on the national health authorities as well as Saami Parliaments’ webpages. Information is available in davvisámegiella/north Saami, julevsámgiella/julev saami, åarjelsaemien/south saami, anarâškielâ /anar saami and nuõrttsääʹmǩiõll / eastern saami.

Are there health issues and/or other factors that could influence the susceptibility of Saami communities? What steps have/could be taken to alleviate these problems?

The Saami people have equal access to the same health services as the society at large. In some cases, they face the same challenges such as too long distances to hospitals, unacceptable emergency preparedness, few respirators and so on. Additional challenges for the Saami people are the long-recognized lack of cultural-appropriate health services and lack of Saami speaking nurses and doctors.
Previous demography studies have indicated that there are generally more elderly people living in what are dominantly Saami communities. (e.g. northern Norway, except for big towns such as Romsa/Tromsø, Álttá/Alta, Girkonjárga/Kirkenes). Limiting the contact with elderly people (65+, later 80+), limits the natural exchange and nurture of the relationship with elders which is so important in Saami culture. This is likely to impact the general health of the elders in the long run.

So far, the virus has been most spread in the areas around the capitals and around the larger cities in the South. Municipals in the North has been criticized for putting in place local restrictions for people flying in from the South, and called for quarantine for those coming in. Finland is the only country that limited travel around the capital area which had most infection. This could have been done in the other countries as well. From a Saami perspective, we could keep the national borders in the North open and drawn the line at the Arctic circle instead, to keep natural movement for reindeer and people, and keep the Saami economy going.

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

There are both negative and positive impact on the Saami communities coming from the national lockdowns. In some areas, reindeer husbandry operates more or less on the national borders, thus migration and other movement is crossing the borders. In the cases of Norway and Sweden, the national authorities rapidly came up with an exception for reindeer husbandry and allowed these herders to cross the border without quarantining afterwards.

The Saami people lives across several national borders. Months of closing of these borders interferes with the Saami families living on different sides of a border. It interferes with the social life of Saami as a people. And not least, it impacts the economy. A great part of the Saami economy is Saami wide. The market for duodji (Saami handicrafts) stretches across the whole of Sápmi (across borders). The Saami festival audience does not know the borders, and the same goes for many large institutions, such as Saami University of Applied Sciences.

Many tourist companies report a total stop in their activities due to the closed borders and no travel. In some cases, this is positive for reindeer husbandry during Easter, this spring and summer, as the reindeer herders would not need to go out and call for closure of access due to reindeer migration, calving or similar. This will reduce the potential conflicts between reindeer herders and the tourist companies, and consequently have less impact on the mental well-being of the reindeer herders. A significant decrease in the cost of gas and diesel will have direct positive impact on the bottom line in the reindeer husbandry accounting. But it is still uncertain how the pandemic will influence the price of reindeer meat.

A lot of the Saami businesses are small or micro businesses, often in combination with several other activities. It will be interesting to see if Saami businesses have survived better than in other areas, in the sense of being small in the first place and traditional. It will be interesting to see if this made them more vulnerable or more resistant for these abrupt changes. Or maybe this traditional way of doing business has been broken already by Western ideas of how to organise a business. The question is also at what level we measure resilience, at company level or personal economy level of the person behind the business.
The Saami Parliament in Norway and the Norwegian government has provided economical support to Saami business in particular through the revised national budget.

There is a great concern that we risk the same attitude towards industrial projects as in other Indigenous Peoples’ areas in the world. There is concern when the government calls for or argues for rapid opening and start-up of industrial projects in order to keep the economy rolling, and ensuring labour opportunities in projects that the Saami peoples have been opposing due to the impact they will have on our culture (e.g. mines and windmills).

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

The lockdown has prevented activities gathering people and have a great impact on the Saami cultural life, as our festivals and markets, as well as conferences and seminars, are important meeting spots for us as a people. Many Saami individuals and organizations make a living from organizing or performing in these events, and our duojárat - our handcrafters - are relying on these events for selling their products. As a result of the Covid-19 spread and lockdown, Saami artists and organizers have lost their income. This is devastating for the cultural sector, which is so crucial for preservation and development of Saami music, art, film, literature and other cultural activities as well as for catalysing important discussions regarding the Saami culture, our rights and our existence. The situation keeps evolving and restrictions are still in place over the Summer when reindeer husbandry moves into calf marking period that often gather up to 300 people. In the reindeer corral it is hard to keep distance to each other while working face to face and shoulder to shoulder. Guidelines on how to regulate human behaviour during this important event, are under discussion many places.

A positive measure enabled through The International Sámi Film Institute was the invitation to Saami film makers to apply for small grant to make short film about the COVID-19 situation. All together 15 short films will show experiences of the lockdown and the Covid-19 situation from a Saami perspective. The series is called Home Sweet home - Oru lea buoret go jođi (A Saami saying). The films became available in June.