Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, Alaska, USA
Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, Alaska, USA

The impact of Covid-19 on Aleut communities

Interview with Liza Mack from the Aleut International Association

How are Aleut communities affected by the coronavirus pandemic?

The Aleut communities have not had any local COVID-19 infections in the region. However, there has been at least one person with strong connections to the Aleut communities who has died from the disease. The communities in Alaska have fallen under the mandates of the State of Alaska. All of the schools in the region were closed for the remainder of the school year. People in our communities followed the mandates and self-quarantined for 14 days upon arrival to their home communities.

The Aleut communities are remote and many rely on the fishing industry. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it changed how people were able to move to and from the region because of the sole airline in the region declaring bankruptcy. Further, the unknowing of whether people were going to be allowed to participate in a fishing industry has been very challenging.

How are Aleut people informed about the pandemic and measures taken to tackle it?

Many of our communities followed the State of Alaska protocols, while also implementing their own safety measures. There are communities that participated in hunkering-down (stay-at-home) rules and also set out measures for travellers to quarantine upon arrival. All of this was done voluntarily. The leadership in the Aleutians were able to hold press conferences on the radio to talk about the challenges and the solutions that were being sought to ensure the health and safety of our people in the communities. Some communities received text messages from the police departments who send out updates. Many people follow the news and the Governors press conferences. The clinics and Tribal governments have provided people with information and masks.

Are there health issues and/or other factors that could influence the susceptibility of Aleut people? What steps have/could be taken to alleviate these problems?

We do have a very vulnerable elder population and we also have many people who are diabetic. All of our communities can only be reached via air and sea. There are no roads. Weather conditions could easily hinder transportation in and out of our communities, potentially leaving someone who is sick very vulnerable to grave illness. Some of the steps that have been taken included incorporating testing and encouraging people to keep to social distancing standards. Our leadership has also been in talks to restore the transportation links to our communities. There are currently opportunities to be tested in several of our communities, including Unalaska, Sand Point and King Cove.

How are Aleut communities affected by the national measures taken to contain the coronavirus?

The downturn in the economy has been challenging, when the airlines went bankrupt, a lot of people were scrambling to get to and from hospital appointments. The disconnection from family and friends has been especially difficult. We are a social culture and being isolated has been challenging, social distancing has contributed to negative mental wellness. The closing of the schools has also been difficult for the kids and parents who have full times jobs and now are also teaching all of the material that is usually done by an education professional.

Have Aleut communities taken any measures in addition to national/regional measures to contain the outbreak?

Yes. There have been measures put into place within each community. As mentioned, many of the Aleut communities rely on the fishing industry. Our communities and leadership have had to think about people coming into our communities to go fishing: elders who spend most of the winter in Anchorage closer to medical facilities, industry workers coming to work in the canneries, fishermen who are from around the region, state and country. One example is that people need to report where they are coming from and who will be fishing on their vessel. Some communities have limited the number of people who can be in the net loft sewing nets at one time. There have been mandates imposed to allow fishermen to work on their bots but they are not allowed off the floats. The grocery stores in small communities have also made rules about the number of people who could be in the stores and recommend wearing masks. The stores and businesses have adjusted to the situations and have been allowing people to phone in orders to be ready for pickup and have also started to offer deliveries.

Are there examples of community resilience that have helped in this situation?

I think our leadership has done a fantastic job. As I mentioned above communicating the importance of keeping our people safe and informing the communities about the dangers while also doing their best to keep our communities alive is incredible. Organizations and community members, teachers and local and regional leadership have done well to keep our communities as safe as they could be. One health organization organized to have fresh fruit and vegetables sent to our Elders. Some Tribal governments have been able to assist their members with heating, utility and grocery costs to offset the effects the pandemic has had at multiple levels. The COVID-19 pandemic is and has been a rapidly evolving issue and everyone is doing their best to control exposure and to keep each other safe. Cultural practices are still taking place albeit with smaller groups, and mostly family oriented.

Could you describe the health facilities Aleut communities have access to and how far away they are from communities?

All of our communities are rural and only accessible by air and sea. The closest real hospital is between 625 to 1200 miles away from the villages where Aleut people reside. Weather and the severity of the illness is at the forefront of many of our thoughts. Each of our communities do have small clinics with health staff and access to telemedicine, but all major issues are treated in Anchorage. This pandemic has brought forward the importance of having plans in place that can help to keep our people and our communities safe.