Inuit cling to culture in trying times

Joaqlin Estus

“We look forward to a time when … we can get back to the ways that have sustained us for millennia”

By Joaqlin Estus

Indian Country Today

Update: Nunavut got its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on Apr. 30. US rate more than 65,000.

When the novel coronavirus started making its way west from Toronto, where Canada’s first case emerged, the Inuit in the Nunavut Territory took strong steps to keep it out.

Togetherness, family, community and sharing are at the heart of Inuit culture. So some restrictions such as social distancing were hard for people to take, but their efforts evidently paid off. Nunavut, which is home to 38,000 people, 80 percent of them Inuit, had its first confirmed case of the virus on Thursday. 

It helps that they’re so isolated.

Aside from snow-machines and dogsleds, the only way into the territory is by plane through four airports. Nunavut is three times the size of Texas, and 10 percent larger than Alaska, with an Arctic and subArctic climate.

Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaqand and other top officials held a news conference last week on COVID-19. They credited Canadian leadership for some of Nunavut’s success in the fight against the disease.

The Canadian federal government created a COVID-19 task force in January, and put in place a range of public health measures. Early on, it  allocated a billion dollars for everything from handling travelers and support for the national microbiology lab, to setting up emergency operations. Of that, $200 million is going toward food for Nunavut elders and youth. Now spending is projected to be as much as $145 billion.

So far, Canada has a total COVID-19-related death toll of fewer than 3,000. By comparison, the U.S. death rate due to the disease is more than 65,000.

On March 24, Nunavut added another layer of travel restrictions to the federal rules. Critically needed workers could travel to Nunavut without going into mandatory isolation only with the written permission of the nation’s chief public health officer. 

Essential workers and residents are required to self-isolate for 14 days before boarding a flight to Nunavut. Medical staff check on them during their stay at hotels used as isolation centers in hotels in four cities south of the territory.

The Nunavut Legislative Assembly in January adopted a public health act that was years in the making. The new law authorizes warrantless entry by police. However, at Wednesday’s news conference, Nunavut's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Michael Patterson noted the warrantless entry option was written into the act before the pandemic. “But is it one that I'm going to be exercising in this circumstance? I don't think so.” 

Nunavut Minister of Health George Hickes added such restrictions can be no greater than reasonably required to respond to disease or a public health emergency. 

Patterson said Nunavut is continuing to work to get personal protective equipment for health workers.

“The PPE is enough to keep us going for a few weeks if we had significant emergencies in a number of areas in the territory, but we’re hoping to expand our supply,” he said.

When asked if COVID-19 could be spreading undetected in Nunavut, Patterson said no.

“Even without tests, we would have seen increased presentations to the hospitals and to the health centers with cough, fever and other respiratory tract infections. We would have seen increased medivacs and admissions. And we have seen all of those drop over the last three to four weeks,” he said.

He noted flu and respiratory virus cases have decreased since the territory put its restrictions in place, and it’s seeing fewer medical evacuations than this time last year.

Meanwhile, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, and its Circumpolar Inuit Health Committee is expressing strong concern about the health risks facing rural and remote Inuit communities internationally. The council is an international non-government organization representing approximately 180,000 Inuit of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Chukotka (Russia). It holds Consultative Status II at the United Nations.

In a statement, the council said the pandemic is adding to the complex, longstanding problems “in most, if not all, of our Inuit communities across Inuit Nunaat [homelands].”

The statement quoted council Chairwoman Dalee Sambo Dorough as saying: “Inuit across our homelands are working to maintain our traditional culture under very trying circumstances. We are used to living together in groups. Social distancing is a foreign concept, and our past experiences with such an advisory were triggered by devastating illnesses such as tuberculosis, measles and polio. This is why we must adapt.”

The council noted issues such as overcrowded housing, lack of proper sewage and potable water systems, high rates of TB and poor broadband connectivity become “starkly evident” during a pandemic. Those conditions will contribute to increased risk of infection if not addressed, it said.

The Inuit Circumpolar Council said it is preparing for an Inuit Health and Well-Being Summit with the goal of drawing lessons from the pandemic “to ensure future preparedness, and identify strategies and priorities to fully close the existing gaps and end the disparities.”

“Social and economic equity, and supporting population health, and reducing vulnerability to virus and disease is critical,” the council said.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today and a longtime Alaska journalist.

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