In Brief

Coronavirus: how Arctic Canada kept Covid-19 at bay

The province of Nunavuk has recorded no community transmission of coronavirus

In normal times, Canada’s northernmost province of Nunavut is one of Earth’s most inhospitable environments.

Almost 15 times the size of England, it is home to just 36,000 people. But in 2020, the Arctic territory has an advantage over the rest of the world.

“So far, with the exception of a few cases at its mines brought in from southern workers, Nunavut has remained Covid-19 free,” says local TV station CKPG Today.

Three weeks ago, the Nunavut government “relaxed public health measures for recreation, leisure and community groups”, as Nunatsiaq News reported at the time. Group fitness classes have restarted, households can mix and “larger gatherings” of up to 100 people are allowed at places of worship, theatres and community halls.

The return to something like normality has been a long time coming.

In March, as the new coronavirus swept around the world and borders began to close, “officials in Nunavut decided they too would take no risks”, the BBC reports. “They brought in some of the strictest travel regulations in Canada, barring entry to almost all non-residents.”

Nunavut’s mines, which are heavily dependent on outside contract workers, were seen as a weak link in the province’s defences. To prevent cross-infections, local workers were sent home and incoming contractors were required to spend 14 days in quarantine at hotels in southern Canada.

The cautious approach resulted from a fear that Inuit communities would be as vulnerable to Covid-19 as they were to Spanish flu a century earlier. “The effects were most devastating in Labrador, where the disease killed close to one third of the Inuit population and forced some communities out of existence,” says Newfoundland-based news website Heritage.

In some Inuit communities, “up to 90% of the population died and the mortality rates were some of the highest in the world”, says BBC Future magazine. “Stories emerged of packs of stray dogs feasting on the bodies of the dead.”

While Nunavut has been spared such a catastrophe during the 2020 pandemic, its chief public health officer Dr Michael Patterson has said people living in the province should not assume Covid will be kept out “indefinitely”.

“I wouldn’t have bet that it would stay this way for this long,” Patterson told the BBC.

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