Nunavik village declines health centre renovation over COVID-19 concerns
Public health offered to bypass quarantine period to kick-start construction
A Nunavik mayor is chiding public health officials for trying to skirt the region’s quarantine process in order to kick-start an important health-care centre renovation.
Kangiqsualujjuaq Mayor Davidee Annanack said he and the Northern Village council were approached on May 14 by Nunavik’s director of public health, Dr. Marie Rochette, who was looking for authorization to fly in construction workers from Montreal just four days later, on Monday, May 18.
A crew of six workers would be working to renovate the local health centre ahead of the installation of a new X-ray machine used to help detect tuberculosis, which would replace an older machine that no longer works, while more specialized teams would be required to fly in to install the X-ray machine.
Nunavik health officials promised that the workers would self-isolate during their time in the community, but they would not complete a period of quarantine before flying from Montreal to Kangiqsualujjuaq, which prompted concern from municipal officials.
“We do want the machine,” Annanack said in Inuktitut, translated into English by Kangiqsualujjuaq’s deputy mayor, Nancy Etok.
“It was just a little too fast, especially given that Montreal has been a hot spot for COVID-19. So we told them no,” he said. “It almost felt like [public health] was overriding their own decision.”
COVID-19 has shut down inter-community travel in Nunavik, except for essential workers and individuals requiring urgent health care. Anyone coming into the region is supposed to be in quarantine for 14 days prior to their travel.
But Kangiqsualujjuaq, with a population of about 1,000, has struggled with TB outbreaks in recent years. The last one was in 2017, when a 21-year-old man died of the bacterial infection.
A handful of newer cases were detected through community-wide screening carried out in Kangiqsualujjuaq last summer, and at least one further case of TB was identified this year.
Rochette said the community was given the option to replace the machine sooner rather than later because workers would otherwise not be available until July—meaning the new machine wouldn’t be in operation until October 2020.
“It was a very unique situation,” Rochette said. “I didn’t want to impose anything. We thought that with strict measures, it would have been enough to start the work this week.”
“Knowing that TB is still a concern in Kangiqsualujjuaq, I wanted this to be looked at first,” she said.
The same machines will eventually be installed in each of Nunavik’s 14 communities, but Rochette considered Kangiqsualujjuaq to have the greatest need.
Without a local X-ray machine, residents who show any symptoms of TB must be flown to Kuujjuaq for X-rays, Rochette explained. That’s now a more complicated trip to arrange, with COVID-19 restrictions in place.
Across Quebec, construction workers have been approved to return to work. But because of the travel required to reach Nunavik communities, there is a regional committee tasked with approving which construction projects should be prioritized over the summer months.
In the case of Kangiqsualujjuaq, Annanack said the arrival of a crew would have put the safety and health of community members at risk.
Annanack said even the suggestion of it harkened back to the 1960s and 1970s, a time he remembers the Quebec government treating Nunavik communities as colonies, when Inuit had little say in managing their own affairs.
With that said, Annanack said he’s still anxious to see restrictions in the region eased—he just wants to make sure Nunavimmiut are on board.
“COVID-19 is going to be around for a long time, so we really need to work together to get communities back up and running,” Annanack said. “A lot of people are really frustrated with the lockdown approach.”
Across Nunavik’s 14 communities, there have been 16 cases of COVID-19—in Salluit, Inukjuak and Puvirnituq—though all the individuals concerned have now recovered.
Throughout the region, only residents who are suspected of possibly having the virus are tested. As of May 17, 236 tests have been done and have come back negative; nine of those are from Kangiqsualujjuaq.