'Do not come to Nunavik,' urge Inuit leaders in attempt to block spread of COVID-19

The threat of a novel coronavirus outbreak decimating northern Quebec as past epidemics have is being taken seriously by local health officials, who say overcrowded living conditions make it nearly impossible for residents to keep a safe distance from one another.

Leaders in Quebec's far north 'literally closing border' to south, trying to avoid repeat of past epidemics

Political leaders in Quebec's Inuit territory of Nunavik are asking all travellers to stay away from northern communities, to avoid having to live through the kind of catastrophic epidemics that decimated past generations.

The Makivik Corporation — which represents Inuit living in northern Quebec — said leaders are "literally closing the border to Nunavik" in response to the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Our elders remember the scourge of tuberculosis, as well as the rapid spread of German measles that killed many Inuit in the 1950s. Taking immediate action to essentially close the Arctic is important to protect our population from this new virus," said Makivik President Charlie Watt in a news release Tuesday.

Makivik has been working with regional organizations, as well as with public health officials at the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services to come up with policies to protect the population.

One of those measures is to encourage people who are returning from a trip abroad to self-isolate for 14 days in southern Quebec before returning to Nunavik.

The two airlines that service the north  — Air Inuit and Canadian North — will also be running at 50 per cent capacity.

Canadian North flights from Kuujjuaq to Montreal will be cut back from seven to four days a week.

Air Inuit is also looking to reduce its service to the Ungava and Hudson regions. Medical and cargo services are not expected to be affected by the changes.

Both airlines are also ramping up efforts to more thoroughly disinfect seats and in-flight equipment.

Makivik is limiting travel for its own employees.

Staff based in Kuujjuaq will not be travelling south to Montreal,  and those in Montreal will not be allowed to travel to Nunavik.

Makivik has also cancelled its own annual general meeting that had been scheduled for the week of March 23 and is asking other organizations to cancel all public gatherings.

Overcrowding a concern 

Public officials warn the health system in Nunavik would be quickly "overwhelmed" if people began falling sick with COVID-19.

"Because of the rampant overcrowding in many of our homes, there is no way for many Inuit to self-isolate if they get the virus," said Watt.

Residents are being asked to abide by the same guidelines in place in the rest of the province.

The public health department of the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services is distributing these flyers in public spaces across Nunavik. (NRBHSS)

Elementary and high schools and adult education centres are closed until at least March 27.

The regional health board has also suspended all visits to patients in health centres, long-term care homes and to Ullivik, the temporary residence in Montreal for Inuit patients undergoing medical treatment in the city.

"Protecting our elders and vulnerable people is at the heart of our concerns," said Minnie Grey, the executive director of the health board.

The health board is also stressing the importance of respecting the guidelines set by Quebec's public health director:

  • Wash your hands with soap frequently.
  • Avoid hugs and avoid shaking hands.
  • Regularly disinfect public spaces.

Federal government to implement 'exceptional measures'

In his update on the COVID-19 situation on Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government reached out to Inuit, Metis and First Nations' leaders Friday "to discuss the work we're doing together on preparedness and mitigation measures."

Trudeau said Indigenous communities will have access to the $1-billion emergency fund Ottawa has set aside to deal with the crisis.

He said the government is looking at "exceptional measures to protect the North."

"We're making sure that everyone, no matter where they live, is prepared."

CBC has requested more information from Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) as to what those measures could look like.

ISC has translated public service announcements about COVID-19 into various Indigenous languages to be shared by local authorities.

The president of Makivik praised Premier François Legault for his handling of the situation to date.

"He's been vigilant and consistent in the manner he has handled the crisis from the start," said Watt.

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