The new coronavirus has the ability to affect the Arctic region in both good and bad ways, said participants at a two-day conference on COVID-19 and the Arctic. (File Image)

Arctic conference considers the challenges posed by COVID-19

“The pandemic has obscured the effect of climate change on human health”

By Jane George

The question of how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect people around the circumpolar world was the focus of a two-day online Arctic conference held this week.

Panellists suggested that the pandemic may offer some positive benefits, if it encourages Arctic people to embrace traditional lifestyles.

But COVID-19 is also expected to worsen the existing health challenges of Arctic people and may draw attention away from the region’s infrastructure shortcomings and the dangers posed by climate change.

“The pandemic has obscured the effect of climate change on human health,” which is much worse in the Arctic than elsewhere, said Dr. Micaela Martinez of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.

Infectious diseases, waterborne diseases, insect diseases and global food security “are not as obvious as the current pandemic we are facing,” she said.

But they are as important to the long-term health of human beings, she said.

The conference, titled COVID-19 Impacts in the Arctic, which was organized by the United States Naval War College, the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute and the U.S. Arctic Research Commission included panellists from Alaska, Nunavut, Labrador, Iceland and Sweden.

Among the participants was Dr. Gwen Healey Akearok, executive director of the Qaujigiartiit Health Research Centre in Iqaluit, who is looking at whether the COVID-19 pandemic could have an impact on existing food insecurity and mental health in Nunavut.

Having more people going out on the land, and extra money being given harvesters during the pandemic, has increased food provisions for Nunavummiut—and “just being out there, and being disconnected from the constant flow of information on COVID, has possibly improved mental health,” she said.

The pandemic has also brought out the resiliency of Inuit and their memories about other pandemics and infectious diseases, Healey Akearok said.

Healey Akearok noted how Nunavut remains the only region in Canada with no positive COVID-19 cases.

“We feel very proud of ourselves. We’re really good at this. This shows where our values elevate our health,” she said, praising Nunavut’s “great and quick policy decisions.”

Memories of the Spanish flu in 1918-19, which hit hard in northern regions such as Alaska and Labrador, have served to ramp up the response in these two circumpolar regions, other participants said.

AlexAnna Salmon, the council president of the Alaskan village of Igiugig, said “the great sickness of 100 years ago” made residents ready to deal with COVID-19.

They put a halt to commercial marine and air traffic into their community, but airplanes and boats with cargo still came in regularly, attracting residents eager for cargo.

“We were identifying our weak points. Keeping people out was easy,” she said.

But when they learned the new coronavirus could linger on packaging, they created a team of local cargo haulers in protective gear to pick up and clean the cargo.

That came as “an immediate change,” based on experiences dating back 100 years ago to stay safe, she said.

And it’s the memory of what happened in 1918 that has made Labrador vigilant about preventing the spread of COVID-19, said Anne Budgell, a former journalist and author of “We All Expected to Die: Spanish Influenza in Labrador, 1918—1919.”

In 1918, the Harmony brought supplies and the flu to Okak and Hebron: 70 per cent of the residents died, which was about 30 per cent of Labrador’s population at the time, Budgell said.

No one could help anyone, and some died of starvation and dehydration, she said.

“Dogs rampaged through village[s] dragging people out of houses,” she said. “It was a nightmare situation.”

While an equivalent disaster hasn’t played out during the current pandemic, it has still uncovered weaknesses in connectivity and communication.

COVID-19 has created a lot of uncertainty for the Arctic Council, said David Balton, the former ambassador to the council when the U.S. chaired the circumpolar forum.

The pandemic has added challenges to Iceland, which took over as the chair of the council last year without a strong mandate for the two-year period, said Balton, who is now a senior fellow at the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute.

“There is never a good time for a pandemic, but for the Arctic Council this time may be a particularly bad time,” he said.

Arctic Council meetings have been cancelled due to COVID-19 or held online, but connecting with the isolated permanent participants can be hard due to poor internet.

While Arctic connectivity remains a problem now, it could save time and travel costs down the road, Balton said.

As well, the pandemic could provide a new public heath focus at the council level.

“The Arctic Council has demonstrated resiliency, has grown and evolved through difficult circumstances. I expect once again we will find our way through,” he said.

This week’s conference is the first devoted to COVID-19 and the Arctic. Conferences to come include next year’s International Congress of Circumpolar Health, which is expected to focus on the pandemic in the Arctic.

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