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Nunavut premier looks back on 2020, the year with 'no handbook'

Looking back on 2020, Premier Joe Savikataaq says keeping Nunavummiut safe is a responsibility that has and continues to weigh heavily on him as a leader.

Joe Savikataaq says a COVID-19 vaccine gives him hope for the new year

Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq says his government can give directions, but it's Nunavummiut who will collectively stop COVID-19 transmission. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

Looking back on 2020, Premier Joe Savikataaq says keeping Nunavummiut safe is a responsibility that has weighed heavily on him as a leader.

But the strides this year by the territory and its residents throughout the COVID-19 pandemic leave him with hope for 2021. 

"There's no handbook for living through a pandemic. It's a steep learning curve. We've learned a lot," he said. "There are things we may have done a little differently. It's been a very interesting year."

Savikataaq says one success by the government this year was setting up hotel isolation hubs "in record time" for residents to isolate for 14 days before returning to Nunavut. Though he also called the hubs a "huge financial burden" for the government, which continues to pay for all travellers to isolate.

"They're still not the most pleasant place to spend 14 days, because you are there for 14 days, and you are not free to go out and about," he said, adding that the government is keeping tabs on the mental health of residents in isolation as well as their physical health. 

Another success he said was the reduction of test result wait times from seven to 10 days, down to a day or two, thanks to testing sites in Iqaluit and Rankin Inlet. 

Before testing machines were set up in the territory, all swabs were sent to southern labs for processing. 

Still, curbing COVID-19, is not only up to politicians Savikataaq said. 

"The government can give direction and recommendations but it's Nunavummiut that are going to stop this virus," he said. 

What Savikataaq is most thankful for this year is the commitment he's seen residents make to do just that. 

"I shouldn't be surprised, but the willingness of Nunavummiut to help their friends, their relatives, their communities — the help that people have offered to Nunavummiut has been huge," he said. "It just shows how much Nunavummiut care and that they will step up and help each other when help is needed." 

Thinking back to earlier this year, Savikataaq says he's also thankful that the government's computer networks were back up and running before the pandemic hit Canada, after a November 2019 ransomware attack compromised the government of Nunavut's networks. 

"I'm so thankful that they didn't happen at the same time," he said.

Next on his gratitude list — the Moderna vaccine, which will arrive in the coming weeks, according to the federal government. The territory has been promised enough doses in the first three months of 2021 to vaccinate up to 75 per cent of Nunavut's adult population. 

"I believe with the vaccine there is a light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "I encourage everyone to take this vaccine."

A lab technician at the Qikiqtani General Hospitals demonstrates how a COVID-19 test is prepared. (Travis Burke/CBC)

This year, Nunavut's COVID-19 response efforts have seen million of dollars flow from the federal government and the territory toward isolation hubs and airline subsidies. As well, toward small businesses, hunters and trappers groups and to support essential services like added water delivery, sending masks to communities and giving food baskets and cleaning supplies to households in need.   

But that money isn't going to see future growth in Nunavut, Savikataaq said. The territory is projecting its largest deficit ever. 

In Nunavut masks are only mandatory right now in communities where there is an active outbreak of COVID-19, but many businesses in the territory are asking people to wear them indoors, like at this grocery store in Iqaluit. (Natalie Maerzluft/REUTERS)

It wasn't until November that Nunavut had reported any cases of COVID-19 outside of fly-in mine sites. 

"All the money we received is spent right now," Savikataaq said. "The immediate goal was to keep Nunavummiut safe and save lives."

Looking forward to post-pandemic, he says the government will look for ways to rebuild Nunavut's economy through support to the private sector for industries, like tourism. 

With Christmas games and holiday parties cancelled and residents being asked to keep to their immediate households for any celebrations, Savikataaq acknowledged that sending off the old year isn't quite the same for 2020. 

But he says residents can still use their seasonal cheer to look toward the new year. 

"I want Nunavut to be happy and to celebrate that we're going to get through this COVID-19. 2020 was a stressful year and I sure hope 2021 is a much better year," Savikataaq said. 

With files from Lucy Burke

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