Canada’s Inuit leaders are nervously watching the coronavirus creep closer and closer, and hoping they can keep it from reaching their communities, where chronic overcrowding and a lack of medical resources make their people especially vulnerable to an outbreak.
Nunatsiavut, the Inuit self-governing region in northern Labrador, is one of the few places left in Canada without a confirmed case of COVID-19. People there are deeply concerned they would be ill-equipped to handle the virus if it arrives, and are worried it’s only a matter a time before they see their first case.
Chronic housing shortages have inflamed recent outbreaks of tuberculosis in the region, and throughout Canada’s North, and makes Labrador’s Inuit population more at risk to the COVID-19 virus because of TB’s lasting impact on the respiratory and immune systems.
“We are not prepared” is the blunt assessment of Johannes Lampe, president of Nunatsiavut, which includes the coastal communities of Hopedale, Makkovik, Postville, Rigolet and Nain.
“We don’t have many of the basic medical things many Canadians take for granted. We don’t have the services we would need if someone became sick. That’s why we are very concerned.”
In Hopedale, N.L., a predominantly Inuit community of around 600 people who live on a rocky peninsula jutting into the Labrador Sea, the village’s medical clinic has one bed, no doctors, no ventilators or any other equipment that would be needed to treat someone with serious coronavirus symptoms.
“If the virus comes, and we pray that it doesn’t, we wouldn’t have the medical space to put people,” said the community’s mayor, Marjorie Flowers. “That makes this even more scary for us. If there’s an outbreak, it will be very hard to handle.”
Hopedale, like all fly-in communities in the autonomous Inuit region of Nunatsiavut, is under strict travel restrictions as authorities try to slow the virus’s advance. And that includes travel by snowmobile, the vehicle of choice for most residents in this remote, snow-covered land.
That’s causing an unsettling feeling among many in the community, as people self-isolate inside at a time of year when snowmobiles would normally be buzzing around their village.
“It’s almost eerie,” Ms. Flowers said. “Sometimes I look out my window, and it’s almost like I don’t think there’s anyone else living here.”
Close quarters, limited resources
When the Spanish influenza of 1918 came to Canada, it killed more than a third of Labrador’s Inuit population and wiped entire communities off the map. For some Inuit, that devastation is still very much a part of their collective memory.
“I think people here understand for the most part what happened in 1918,” said Sean Lyall, an Inuit man who lives in Nain, the most northerly community in Labrador. “We lost a third of our people because of that horrible disease. It’s definitely on everybody’s minds.”
A 2018 tuberculosis outbreak in his community infected more than 50 people, and claimed the life of a 14-year-old boy. The disease exposed Nain’s housing problems, including poor ventilation in many dwellings and multiple families living under one roof often sharing two- or three-bedroom homes.
“This virus would be particularly devastating up here, because of the overcrowding situation,” Mr. Lyall said. “There’s a lot of people here with pre-existing health conditions, from TB to diabetes.”
People in Nunatsiavut are nervously watching the virus approach their border. There are already cases in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, the region’s main transportation and medical hub.
Nunavik, the neighbouring Inuit region in northern Quebec, has confirmed two cases of the virus among its residents. The first was announced after police imposed a curfew on all 14 villages in that self-governing region. Kativik Regional Police cancelled all flights in and out of Salluit, where the woman tested positive for COVID-19, in response.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says the federal government is ready to call in the army to help northern communities if needed. Mr. Miller said it’s a case of when – not if – outbreaks will hit Indigenous communities and Ottawa is working with those governments on pandemic emergency plans.
‘We have to have hope’
Some Inuit are already taking matters into their own hands. In Nunavut, mine workers from Quebec were blocked by residents of Rankin Inlet last month from entering work sites, out of concern they could be bringing the virus into the territory. Nunavut has since closed its borders.
Labrador’s Innu, a distinct Indigenous group of about 3,000 people, are also calling for the closing of all commercial airports, highways and ferries connecting Labrador to the rest of Canada in an effort to protect their communities.
The national organization that represents Inuit in Canada, meanwhile, wants air transportation to be designated an essential service during the pandemic. Flights across the North have already been dramatically cut back, with some routes completely suspended. In communities that can’t be reached by road or railway, those flights are critical links for food, medicine and other important supplies.
Nunatsiavut has increased funding to food banks and community freezers that share wild game as some flights from the south have been reduced. Because those supply routes are so crucial, Inuit communities “can’t really shut the door" to protect themselves from the pandemic, Mr. Lampe said. Nunatsiavut also has a responsibility to protect Inuit who live outside those communities, he said.
That’s why the Indigenous government has asked anyone coming home, including students and government staff, to self-isolate for 14 days in Happy Valley-Goose Bay before travelling on to their communities. It’s one of many steps taken to slow the virus, including cancelling church services, schools and gatherings of any kind. Nunatsiavut also postponed its elections for president until October.
“As Inuit, we love being around others and with family, we love being together. But we can’t do that right now,” Ms. Flowers said. “If we want to stop this virus, we need people to take this seriously.”
Labrador-Grenfell Health, the provincial health authority responsible for Nunatsiavut, says it can test residents of Labrador’s most northern communities without requiring them to leave their villages. But if their test is positive and they require hospitalization, they would need to fly to the regional hospital in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
Some Labrador Inuit have tried to ease their anxiety by hanging Moravian stars in their windows. In the villages established by Moravian missionaries in the 1700s along this rugged northern coastline, that faith still holds tight. The stars, normally reserved for Christmas, are seen as a sign of hope.
In Hopedale, the village’s recreation director has also been coming up with new ways to entertain children stuck at home, including riding around the community on a snowmobile pulling characters from the popular children’s show Paw Patrol in a wooden sled. Others are hanging Christmas lights or putting teddy bears in their windows.
Mr. Lampe, looking out his own window onto Nain’s empty streets, said it’s important the Inuit of Nunatsiavut hold onto something positive at a time when they feel at the mercy of a virus beyond their control.
“We have to have hope. Sometimes that’s all we have,” he said.
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