Nfld. & Labrador·Opinion

COVID has affected Inuit communities differently. History and experience help explain why

Inuit have not had consistent experiences in the COVID-19 pandemic. In a guest column for CBC Opinion, Inuk researcher Richard Budgell writes it will continue to be "vitally important that Inuit make the right decisions, for our survival as a people."

Inuit have not had consistent experiences in the COVID-19 pandemic; let's look at why

Josephee Adams in January received the first COVID-19 vaccine in Nunavut. (Government of Nunavut)

This column is an opinion by Richard Budgell, a Labrador Inuk and an assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine at McGill University in Montreal. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.


Like other Canadians, Inuit have lived through difficult and frightening times during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

It's challenging to describe the experiences across Inuit Nunangat — the Inuit homeland that spans Arctic and northern Canada — because provincial and territorial jurisdictions collect and publish data in different ways.

No province or territory has tracked COVID-19 cases or vaccination rates of Inuit. Instead, cases, deaths and vaccinations are tracked by location.

Non-Inuit who live in Inuit Nunangat communities are included in the data. And the growing numbers of Inuit living outside of Inuit Nunangat — thousands of people in Ottawa, Montreal, St. John's and other urban centres — are excluded.

In Nunatsiavut, in northern Labrador, there have been no COVID-19 cases. Nunavik in northern Quebec has seen 50, including two deaths (a rate of 355 cases per 100,000 population, versus the national Canadian rate of 3,976). In Nunavut, there have been 657 cases and four deaths (1,694 cases per 100,000). Data are not available on the Inuvialuit region in the Northwest Territories.

COVID vaccination rates also vary — considerably — across the Inuit homeland.

In the five Inuit communities of Nunatsiavut, as of July 30, 2021, 79.5 per cent of the eligible population of 2056 had received two doses of the vaccine; 89.3 per cent had received at least one dose. Some Nunatsiavut communities have very high vaccination rates: in Makkovik, 86.6 per cent of its eligible population of 254 is fully vaccinated, and 97.6 per cent have had at least one dose.

Nain is the largest community in Nunatsiavut, the Inuit land in northern Labrador. (Submitted by Elsie Russell)

Vaccination rates are very different in Nunavik, in northern Quebec. As of Aug. 15, 35.2 per cent of the eligible population in Nunavik was fully vaccinated; 46.2 per cent had received their first dose. Vaccination status by age range shows a great deal of variation: while 100 per cent of Nunavimmiut over 60 are fully vaccinated, only 33.5 per cent of the 12-17 age group, and 54.2 per cent of people between 18 and 29.

In the largest Inuit region, Nunavut, as of Aug. 10, 69 per cent of its total eligible population was fully vaccinated, and 79 per cent had received at least one dose. In the youngest eligible age group of 12- to 17-year-olds, 47 per cent had received two doses and 62 per cent had received at least one.

In the six communities of the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, as of Aug. 14, the fully vaccinated range from 59 per cent to 86 per cent of their community's eligible population; 67 per cent to 89 per cent are partially vaccinated.

Some history is not that far in the past

What accounts for all this variation within Inuit Nunangat?

I would suggest much of it relates to the historical memory and lived experience of Inuit.

The Inuit community of Okak was devastated by the Spanish influenza epidemic that started in 1918. (S.K. Hutton/Memorial University)

Labrador — including what is now the Nunatsiavut region — was hit very hard by the Spanish influenza epidemic in 1918-19.

In one Inuit community, Okak, 207 out of 266 inhabitants died, rendering the community no longer viable.

Those tragic events are part of the cultural memory of Labrador Inuit, and many Labrador Inuit are aware of their relationships to survivors or victims of the epidemic.

That knowledge may have contributed to the strong desire of Labrador Inuit to get the COVID vaccination.

Inuit encounter a Western-oriented health system that employs few Inuit in professional roles, and that incorporates little in the way of Inuit values. For Inuit to feel unsafe in that system is not surprising.

A common experience of Inuit across Canada was their exposure to the tuberculosis epidemic in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s: more than one-third of Inuit were thought to have TB.

For Inuit, treatment of TB almost always involved medical evacuations of great distance (for example, from Nunavik to Montreal: 1,400 kilometres, but much longer by boat), often without the consent of the patient. Children were evacuated without parental consent or accompaniment.

A naturally inspired mistrust

The traumatic TB treatment experience naturally inspired mistrust of the medical system for many Inuit. That cultural memory contributes to suspicion about medical interventions.

Throughout Inuit Nunangat, Inuit encounter a Western-oriented health system that employs few Inuit in professional roles and incorporates little in the way of Inuit values. For Inuit to feel unsafe in that system is not surprising.

Finally, many Inuit — especially in younger age groups — participate in social media, like other global citizens. Inuit are exposed to, even sometimes promote misinformation, such as suggesting that the vaccine is being tested on Inuit; that it modifies the genetic structure of its recipients; or that it turns people into "demons."

People make decisions that make sense to them, that may be based in historical or scientific fact, or that are founded on experience — or misinformation.

Most Inuit have made the right decisions and gotten vaccinated.

In a world of fourth waves and more contagious COVID variants, it will continue to be vitally important that Inuit make the right decisions, for our survival as a people.


Related

WATCH | Richard Budgell spoke with CBC Montreal this spring about a new course at McGill University that tackles discrimination that Indigenous people face in the health-care system: 

McGill medicine course aims to address systemic discrimination faced by Indigenous people

1 year ago
Duration 4:49
Richard Budgell is an assistant professor in the department of family medicine at McGill University and is an Inuk beneficiary under the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story listed numbers of cases per 100,000 people as deaths per 100,000.
    Aug 29, 2021 10:08 AM NT

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Richard Budgell is an assistant professor in the department of family medicine at McGill University and a doctoral student in the history of medicine. He was a public servant with the federal government for more than 30 years. He grew up primarily in Labrador and is an Inuk beneficiary under the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement.

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