The Current

Crowded houses, isolation fatigue among concerns as Nunavut enters COVID lockdown

As Nunavut prepares to enter a two-week lockdown period, Lorne Kusugak, the territory’s health minister, is positive residents will overcome the disease. But despite his confidence, concerns prevail among some Nunavummiut.

Avoiding the blame game is key to getting through this, says Nunavut's health minister

An aerial shot of Arviat, Nunavut, one of the territory's communities most impacted by recent COVID-19 outbreaks. (Submitted by Dylan Clark)

Read story transcript

As COVID-19 numbers continue to rise in Nunavut, the territory's health minister, Lorne Kusugak, is advising Nunavummiut to stay away from "the ugly side of humanity" and avoid playing the blame game. 

"We have a very small community in Nunavut, and we've got to stay away from that," he told The Current's Matt Galloway. "We're battling COVID; we're not battling our neighbours."

Kusugak's comments come on the back of Nunavut's first brush with the virus. On Nov. 6, the government of Nunavut identified the first confirmed case of the virus in the territory.

Since then, 59 more cases of COVID-19 have been identified in Nunavut, bringing its total up to 60. It's the most confirmed active cases of the virus among the territories.

"What's most concerning is that we're seeing these numbers grow," he said. "Our primary goal is to keep it out — and it has arrived in our territory and it's most unwelcome."

As a response to the virus, Nunavut will enter a mandatory, territory-wide restriction period starting Wednesday, which will last for two weeks.

All non-essential services, business and organizations will be required to close and, if possible, switch to a work-from-home basis.

Lorne Kusugak, Nunavut's minister of health, says Nunavut is prepared to deal with potential COVID-19 outbreaks in the territory. (Jackie McKay/CBC)

Though the virus hasn't been in the territory for long, Nunavummiut are already feeling a change in atmosphere.

"It's definitely a different feeling now with COVID being actually here now, even though it was inevitable that eventually we would have COVID come to our communities," said Joe Karetak, a health research coordinator at the Aqquimavik Society in Arviat.

CBC journalist Selma Eccles says the pandemic has felt "so real" for residents of the territory since the first confirmed case earlier this month.

"Before, we were COVID-free, we were happy about that," said Eccles, who is also Karetak's sister. "But now, it's in our communities and it's like, people are cleaning their houses like there's no tomorrow almost."

Self-isolation concerns

Though this is Nunavut's first brush with COVID-19, Kusugak says the territory was prepared for any potential outbreak.

"We've had the luck or fortune of not having had it in Nunavut for the last seven months, and that has given us an opportunity to take a look at what is happening in other parts of the country, and it's given us an opportunity to analyze things and prepare for it," he said. 

But despite Kusugak's assurance, Karetak worries about how quickly the virus will spread throughout the territory, given the closeness of most Nunavummiut communities.

"It's something that we've heard being very serious throughout the news and how it's affecting the world, and knowing how close-knit families we are, if it ever got up here it was going to spread fast." he said. 

This is especially concerning given the small size of the average house, which could be an issue if a member of a household is forced to isolate, according to Karetak.

"I have a three-bedroom house with one bathroom and, you know, we have off and on three to five people living here at a time, and if one was supposedly to get COVID, we're being told they'd have to stay isolated in their room," he said. 

"The space is so small, and there's families that have way more than five people living in a three-bedroom house with one bathroom."

Joe Karetak, a health research coordinator at the Aqquimavik Society in Arviat, is worried the tight-knit nature of Nunavummiut communities could accelerate the spread of the virus within the territory. (Submitted by Joe Karetak)

Karetak told Galloway he's worried people won't be able to get the health care that they need in the community.

"We don't have, like, a hospital where there are a lot of rooms there that patients could stay in there," he said. "Any time there's a serious situation … they get sent down to Winnipeg,"

"So if you have to be hospitalized, we don't have hospitals here designed to have you stay there. It's really more to assess you — to see if you should be sent down or you can recover from your home. There's already no spaces up here to isolate people."

According to Kusugak, this is why it was important for the government to catch the virus at an early stage. He says the government has been able to prepare for situations like this by creating community-based emergency teams involving volunteers and local emergency workers that can assist when outbreaks occur.

He added that the government has located areas where individuals could be isolated from others, such as hotels or gymnasiums.

CBC journalist Selma Eccles is concerned about the impact isolation could have on Nunavummiut, especially elders. (Submitted by Selma Eccles)

Along with potential problems with self-isolation, Eccles is concerned about the impact isolation could have on Nunavummiut, especially the elders.

"It affects everybody because we are taught to go and see our elders. We have to check on them, go and see them," she said. "My mother's younger sister lives here [in Rankin Inlet]. She lives along with COVID-19. They're even more isolated."

Kusugak says that elder facilities have had to be locked down in order to protect them from getting the virus, and that individuals need to meet certain requirements before visiting their elderly relatives.

"The public health officer has to make sure that the individual is safe to do so, that they are not on the watch list, they're not one of the people who are under contact tracing and so on and so forth," he said.

Still, the individual would have to adhere to strict measures, such as maintaining physical distancing while they are visiting.

That isolation has made residents use any opportunity they can to get in touch with others, including local radio shows. 

"People are able to call on there ... just to have somebody else to talk to," Eccles said.

A united Nunavut 

Though the winter months could make it difficult for individual households to self-isolate, Kusugak believes Nunavut will return to zero cases if residents can keep this message of unity in mind.

"I truly believe that the community, if we stay united and continue to battle this and stay away from all the other stuff and just concentrate on this, we will be there," he said.

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Ines Colabrese and Isabelle Gallant.