As It Happens·Q&A

Mayor of Nunavut town hit by COVID-19 asks residents to stay calm, tend to mental health

On Nov. 6, Nunavut confirmed its first-ever COVID-19 case. Ten days later, the small hamlet of Arviat is contending with 20 cases.

Of Nunavut's 26 confirmed COVID cases, 20 are in the hamlet of Arviat

Joe Savikataaq Jr. is the mayor of Arviat. (Pauline Pemik/CBC)

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On Nov. 6, Nunavut confirmed its first-ever COVID-19 case. Ten days later, the small hamlet of Arviat is contending with 20 cases. 

The territory announced new restrictions on Monday, ordering non-essential businesses to close, advising masks in all public spaces, closing schools and limiting social gatherings. The total number of COVID cases in Nunavut currently stands at 26.

Arviat's mayor, Joe Savikataaq Jr. spoke with As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal about how he's trying to keep people calm in the community, while limiting the rumour mill on social media. Here is part of their conversation.

Your hamlet has tried to be proactive during this pandemic, but do you think it was only a matter of time before it would have to contend with COVID-19?

The government of Nunavut has done what they could to prevent anything from entering Nunavut. But when the cases in Winnipeg started to rise, which is our close connection to southern Canada, I think it was a matter of time.

Why do you think Arviat in particular is seeing the majority of COVID-19 cases in the territory?

That I cannot answer at this moment. I'm not a medical expert. But we are working on that right now to figure out why or how it entered Arviat.

We've all been watching this pandemic sweep the globe. It didn't land in your community until now. How have you and your community members been preparing for this moment?

We've been preparing for this. We were getting ready just in case, whether it came or not. All of our shields are up, but everything's in place. We were in a very good mode to stop the transmission any further than it is going right now, and we will prevail.

The small hamlet of Arviat in Nunavut confirmed 20 COVID cases. (Jordan Konek/CBC)

A lot of folks in your community were wearing masks even before it was mandatory when they were out and about. That's something we don't always see in other jurisdictions. What are your biggest challenges right now in limiting the spread?

The community has been amazing. Even before our family council met for an emergency meeting on Remembrance Day, we met and had an emergency meeting where there was the first case in our neighbouring community here.

For those of you that don't know where we are, there are no roads connected to where we come from. So everything is by the aircraft only. We immediately went into lockdown mode — basically back to what we were back in March and April.

Even before we had our meeting, people were already wearing masks, even though there was no case. That was amazing of our people here in Arviat. I'd really like to thank everyone that has done their part so far.

What concerns and fears are people sharing with you?

We remained at zero for a long period of time. Now that it's here, some people are quite in shock, not surprisingly. But we are trying to mitigate that. We're trying to control, manage fear … yet at the same time respect this virus.

Because this virus here. You cannot see it, you cannot hear it and you cannot smell it. We are dealing with [an] unforeseen force here and we want people to be ready. Please try and control your fear and your mental health. That's one of the most important things — our mental health right now.

Making sure the right information and not misinformation or disinformation is out there in a small town. Word travels fast and sometimes rumours spread fast as well. What are you seeing on social media?

This is a small town where the population is just over 3,000 people. Word does travel fast. Everything is twisted along the way or changes direction. But to the people that are listening — whatever you see on social media, do not believe it unless you see it from the government of Nunavut or the hamlet of Arviat Facebook. Those two are reliable and accurate.

The premier, your dad, Joe Savikataaq, has said there is certainly community spread in Arviat in particular. How do you combat that?

Best thing to do right now … absolutely stop visiting, which they're already doing and following. But there was a time that, before we knew it was in town, it had been spreading.

You mentioned mental health. It's a struggle for people right across the country, isolation in particular. But in a small community like yours, how big of a sacrifice is not visiting?

It's very big. Lots of people are very social up here. There are a lot of big families who interact with each other.

Right now there's a housing shortage in Nunavut. There are a lot of overcrowded homes where people are crammed in like sardines. That's another hurdle that we have to try and get over.

What are your plans to try to get over hurdles like that one?

Nothing happens overnight. Rome was not founded overnight. It will take time, but we will eventually get in a much better position. And it's only uphill from now. Everything is getting better.

You said earlier you're not a medical expert, but do you have a hunch or an idea about how it got into your community?

There's only one [route] to Arviat, and it's from Winnipeg. There are people that go down there for medical reasons, although there's a mandatory isolation hub in Winnipeg hotel, that one must stay [at]. But as I'm sure medical experts that are listening across the country would know, some people do not show any signs of symptoms when they're carrying it.

Nunavut initiating 2-week lockdown due to COVID-19


5 months ago
Saying it's similar to what the territory saw in March and April, Nunavut Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Michael Patterson announced a minimum two-week lockdown beginning Wednesday in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. 2:55

We should tell people that you took the job of mayor back in March and the previous mayor, Bob Leonard, had passed away. You've had to learn pretty pretty quickly on the job.

Very much, I went straight into the fire. Luckily, I was working close to Bob while he was with us and I was his deputy mayor at the time. So that helped quite a bit.

How are you trying to reassure the people in your community?

Remain calm. When I go to the store like anyone else to get groceries or essential stuff that we need at the stores here, to not panic.… Lead by example.

Written by Tahiat Mahboob. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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