North

Global Inuit organization concerned about potential spread of COVID-19 in the North

If the novel coronavirus spreads to the North, Inuit communities in Canada and elsewhere in the Arctic are at a much higher risk of exposure because of a chronic lack of basic infrastructure and resources, according to the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

Inuit communities at much higher risk because of chronic lack of resources, say council

A stop sign seen in Iqaluit in 2015. The Inuit Circumpolar Council says if the novel coronavirus spreads to the North its communities in Canada, Alaska and Greenland are at a much higher risk of exposure because of a chronic lack of basic infrastructure and resources. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

If the novel coronavirus spreads to the North, Inuit communities in Canada and elsewhere in the Arctic are at a much higher risk of exposure because of a chronic lack of basic infrastructure and resources, according to the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

The council, which represents about 180,000 Inuit living in Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia, said they must be considered in government responses to the novel coronavirus, also called COVID-19, because of the potential compounding threat to basic health and well-being in those communities.

Many communities lack sewers and running water, putting people at greater risk of getting sick from COVID-19, the respiratory disease linked to the virus, the council said this week, noting there is already a high prevalence of tuberculosis and other respiratory infections in those communities.

"Despite being the original inhabitants of some of the most affluent countries in the world, gaps in basic infrastructure continue to contribute to severe health risks," the council said in a news release.

To date, we have seen little evidence to indicate that the federal government learned from these mistakes.- NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh

The council has also called on governments to close those infrastructure gaps to protect against future health threats.

Trudeau's meeting with Inuit-Crown committee

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a meeting with the Inuit-Crown partnership committee Friday, where he acknowledged gaps in Canada's Inuit communities range "from housing to health care."

He did not specifically address COVID-19 in his public remarks, but said that he and his cabinet ministers were there to listen to Inuit leaders' concerns.

Natan Obed, the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and co-chair of the committee, also did not mention the virus in his comments. 

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed in a file photo from July 17, 2017. Obed did not mention the COVID-19 virus in his public remarks, but said eliminating the infrastructure deficit is on the suggested work plan for the Inuit-Crown partnership committee. (The Canadian Press)

But he said eliminating the infrastructure deficit is on the suggested work plan for the committee, and he was pleased to see it in the Liberal campaign platform too.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh wrote a letter to Trudeau Friday, urging him to make sure Indigenous and Inuit communities are not disproportionately affected if Canada ends up dealing with a widespread outbreak of the virus.

Singh cautioned the government not to repeat mistakes made during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009. A research review by the National Collaborating Centres for Public Health found a fairly strong association between severe manifestations of the H1N1 influenza and the isolation of Indigenous communities after that outbreak.

"To date, we have seen little evidence to indicate that the federal government learned from these mistakes," Singh wrote in the letter.

He called on the government to appoint Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller as a permanent member of the new COVID-19 cabinet committee, struck earlier this week to provide an whole-of-government approach to combating the virus. 

There are eight cabinet ministers on the committee, with Miller listed as one of seven alternates.

Indigenous Services Canada is also working with the Public Health Agency of Canada, other relevant departments, and its provincial and territorial counterparts to protect the health and safety of First Nations, Métis and Inuit and support them in responding to public health threats, including COVID-19, according to a statement from the office of Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.

The department is also represented on the other response committees in place to respond to the coronavirus threat.

Written by Laura Osman, with files from Teresa Wright