Covid-19 is a global pandemic, a shock with wide-ranging implications. The longer-term implications remain unclear. However, we’ve already learned that we are not all impacted in the same way. More than a year after the pandemic was declared, we know that certain populations, communities and regions have been harder hit. Here we give you a glimpse of efforts to better understand the unique circumstances for Arctic communities and peoples. Here we demonstrate the power and talent of the networks of Arctic leaders, experts and knowledge holders that mobilized and responded. Here we demonstrate the importance and urgency of continuing to work together to advance Arctic resilience.

Jennifer Spence, Executive Secretary of the Arctic Council’s Sustainable Development Working Group

Stronger together

On 12 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) a global pandemic. Arctic experts and knowledge holders responded quickly with urgent calls to recognize the unique risks and implications for Indigenous peoples and Arctic residents. As Dr. Anders Koch, a medical epidemiologist and university professor in Greenland stated at the time, “The reason why we’re particularly concerned with Arctic communities is not that we necessarily consider their populations more susceptible to more severe courses of the diseases. The main problem is that the health systems are not geared for such a challenge.”

Christina Henriksen, President of the Saami Council, agreed and pointed to long distances to healthcare facilities. However, she also expressed optimism that Sámi people have valuable strengths that would serve them well during the pandemic, “The remoteness of many Sámi communities combined with harsh working conditions in fisheries and reindeer husbandry, make us dependent on staying healthy, and staying away from unsafe situations wherever possible. Also, we’re mostly self-sufficient when it comes to food – and that makes it quite easy for us to isolate.”

Acknowledging both the unique strengths and vulnerabilities of Arctic communities, there was swift recognition that people across the Arctic would benefit from the lived experiences, best practices and knowledge of communities and experts from across the circumpolar North. Dedicated international cooperation would be essential for responding to the pandemic in the Arctic. “For the Arctic Council, our primary concern at this moment is the health and safety of Arctic inhabitants. In uncertain times such as these, it’s – perhaps more than ever – important for international cooperation to continue,” stated the Chair of the Senior Arctic Officials of the Arctic Council, Einar Gunnarsson, early on in the pandemic.

With this call to action, the Arctic Council mobilized a diverse community of experts and knowledge holders with connections to the Council’s Working and Expert Groups. They worked together to examine the unique risks and challenges for the Arctic region as a result of both the pandemic and the actions taken to respond to it. In just five weeks, this group was able to draw together information from a broad range of sources to prepare a briefing document that was presented to Senior Arctic Officials at their June 2020 executive meeting.

This document not only considered the human health risks of the pandemic. Experts and knowledge holders recognized that it was critical to consider the social, economic and cultural implications of the pandemic as well. Core themes that emerged in this briefing document include:

  • The value of enhancing international collaborations to support research and policy actions for current and future pandemic realities
  • The necessity of ensuring that Arctic peoples lead efforts to define and respond to their communities’ needs
  • The impact of fragile, sub-standard or absent critical physical and social infrastructure (health care, water and sewage, housing, telecommunications, education, energy, transportation)
  • The unique health and social needs and circumstances of Arctic inhabitants, including the value and relevance of Indigenous traditional practices
  • The importance of data consistency, information sharing, observation and research across the Arctic with particular attention to strengthening local involvement and capacity.
  • The need to foster and contribute to the resilience of Arctic communities (economic diversification, cultural integrity, social vitality and environmental sustainability)
  • Decisive action and community leadership

Over one year later, these preliminary findings still remain highly relevant. Covid-19 has presented a steep learning curve and proved itself to be a severe stress test for the resilience of the Arctic. It’s clear that Covid-19 is not only a significant risk to human health, but has proven challenging for social, economic, and cultural well-being across the Arctic.

The pandemic has amplified existing vulnerabilities. For example, as the world becomes even more dependent on connecting virtually, it draws attention to the importance of bandwidth and affordable connectivity. Yet, broadband pricing, availability, reliability and accessibility remain some of the biggest challenges in remote Arctic communities. The pandemic emphasizes the importance of responding to connectivity challenges in the Arctic so that communities will not be excluded from decision-making conversations, the global economy or social connectedness.

Furthermore, insufficient access to health facilities and equipment, housing and potable water in remote Arctic communities have made it challenging to follow recommended health directives and procedures meant to protect communities from the spread of the virus. This requires careful thought to how to modify and tailor strategies to be effective in Arctic communities.

However, Arctic communities have shown amazing leadership. “I really do believe that it’s because of the decisive, early action of Inuit community leadership that we have been able to contain and exert greater control over the spread of the virus,” explained Dalee Samboo Dorough, President of the Inuit Circumpolar Council. Arctic communities have demonstrated their abilities to be innovative, flexible and adaptive in responding to the pandemic. They set up programs to support and encourage people to go out onto the land, launched initiatives to protect vulnerable elders and encouraged food sharing efforts to respond to issues with access to healthy, nutritious food.

Overall, we know that Arctic jurisdictions have seen notable success in limiting the number of cases and containing the spread of Covid-19 relative to the South. For example, Greenland has experienced a total of 30 cases within the first year of the pandemic because of strict restrictions on travel, strong isolation practices and mandatory testing. However, experts emphasize that these practices are only sustainable temporarily – isolation comes with high costs. As the pandemic carries on, Arctic communities are expected to have lasting social, economic, and political implications.

Looking Ahead

As case numbers slowly decline, and the rollout of vaccinations across the Arctic continue, we can expect the pandemic will be slowly brought under control and attention will shift to strategies to manage Covid-19 and efforts to assess and respond to the longer-term health, social, economic and cultural impacts of the pandemic. This shifts the questions we need to consider to: how can we mitigate the longer-term impacts of the pandemic, support Arctic communities in post-pandemic recovery, and improve our preparedness for future pandemics?

It’s essential to continue exchanging experiences on the virus and sharing vaccination plans. Arctic cooperation remains vital to successfully managing the virus and lessening impacts. “What has been demonstrated is the ability to collaborate and connect the dots between many different initiatives, because the reality is, in a shock situation like this, many organizations will mobilize and the question is how do we work collectively to tackle the issues we face as opposed to working independently and perhaps overlapping,” said Stéfan Skjaldarson, Chair of the Arctic Council’s Sustainable Development Working Group during the Icelandic Chairmanship (2019-2021).

The Arctic Council will continue to play an important role in bringing together experts and knowledge holders to assess and analyze the impacts of Covid-19, and to provide policy-relevant advice and guidance. Moving forward, it remains important to draw on research, Indigenous knowledge and local knowledge, and the experiences of Arctic communities to develop recommendations that inform action.

Human health and responding to Covid-19 will remain an important priority for the Arctic Council under the leadership of the Russian Chairmanship. Under the guidance of the Sustainable Development Working Group, the Arctic Council is committed to advancing a suite of initiatives that will draw on the broad range of expertise that exist both within and outside the Council to address the impacts of the pandemic in the Arctic.