Whitehorse, Yukon
Whitehorse, Yukon

The impact of Covid-19 on Athabaskan communities

16 July 2020
Interview with the Arctic Athabaskan Council

How are Athabaskan communities affected by the coronavirus pandemic?

The Northwest Territories confirmed five cases of Covid-19 – all travel-related between 21 March and 5 April, 2020. There has been no discussion or confirmation if any were of Athabascan descent. The five individuals voluntarily isolated upon returning to the North and only developed their symptoms days later that required them to be tested for Covid-19. Our communities could have had serious infection rates that would have been detrimental to the populations. The fear, panic and stress of the unknown of Covid-19 has created a very unhealthy environment. There have also been eleven cases in Yukon.

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

Our communities are relying on the direction of the Chief Public Health Officer and the regulations and protocols created for our safety and to ensure vulnerable populations are not impacted. These are created and put in place through World Health Organization recommendations related to the pandemic. The campaigns to share information have most notably been online through social media platforms and on territorial radio broadcasts. Communities are using the local radio stations to translate the information for awareness and education. This was helpful for the older generation, who are often only fluent in their first language, such as Dene Zhatie, Tlicho Yati, Wiiliideh Yati, etc. In addition, posters were put up in the communities’ local stores and other venues that were declared essential businesses.

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

Many of our communities have members that suffer from a number of diseases and pre-existing conditions that heighten their risk of suffering from Covid-19 and may lead to a more severe illness. General physical health is of concern but so is the mental health of our communities. Overcrowding, multigenerational homes, inadequate housing that is neither affordable nor safe and infrastructure needs all play a role in the overall health of the community. The basic recommendation is for everyone to “wash their hands”. Communities that rely on trucked water service on a schedule and with limited amounts of water available cannot be expected to wash, clean and sanitize like those in urban or regional centers. The pandemic has thus forced the regional centers to examine how social issues are handled and to create safe spaces for our most vulnerable that are homeless. There is also a need to examine how to be better prepared for situations and phases like the one we are currently experiencing and to work together at a local-territorial-federal level. Furthermore, emergency measure plans have to be completed for all communities. Facilities dedicated for emergencies would have to be sterilized before community members can be housed in them. The Canadian military would have to be on alert to assist the communities if disasters such as floods and wildfires hit the community.

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

The disconnect and isolation from extended family and kin has impacted Athabaskan communities. When one is used to gathering in times of joy and sorrow and being told that is not possible for the overall safety of the collective - we are tossed into a very confusing space. This period of time has extended into three months, the stress and trauma of isolation, physical disconnect from elders and the greater community as a whole is manifesting itself in many shapes and forms. Affecting not only physical, but also mental and spiritual health as well. Business closures puts economic stress on the community and worry for the future. Families have had to mourn in isolation, choosing a small circle to say their goodbyes and make peace with loved ones near the end of their journey. Funerals have been postponed and a proper ceremony has had to be minimized and possibly not followed due to the safety health regulations. Spring hunt is also a time for gathering, knowledge transfer and celebration, but because of Covid-19, families could not perform traditional practices.
A lot of people had looked forward to springtime gatherings and getting together with each other to welcome back the spring season.

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

Smaller communities have taken it upon themselves to create a border patrol at the entrance to their community as another means of defense to keep the disease away. The closure of borders and limited travel have been the biggest adjustment and seemingly success of containing the virus and stopping the spread into the territory. A few families also went to their bush camps and committed to remaining there until they felt safe to return to the community. Families took on homeschooling for their children. A number of women made their own masks and hand sanitizer, and made their homemade remedies available to their friends and relatives.

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

Resilience can always be found within our communities. Individuals and groups are coming together to create safe, socially-distanced appropriate spaces that allow check-ins and connections. Pacing ceremony within the boundaries of the social distancing regulations and providing comfort and a sense of stability for communities. Communities have lighted and tended to sacred fires, held drum circles and encouraged returning to the land and spring camps. People have also been using the internet and technology to connect communities and kin across the miles, through celebration and social gatherings, such as spring talent shows. Some communities have had success in families heading out on the land with their children and grandchildren. Reconnecting to a more traditional means of living and having the ability for children to “tap-out” from modern amenities and electronics. Grandchildren and grandparents are learning and sharing with each other in a holistic and natural way. News outlets shared these positive news stories, encouraging more families to do the same and allow some joy to take the headlines away from the panic and stress of Covid-19.

Also, one Athabaskan community school is offering students drive-in internet access to help them stay connected during the coronavirus pandemic because a majority of them have limited or no access otherwise. The K-12 school rearranged its routers and plans to keep the drive-in access in place as long as it is needed. At the start of Covid-19, teachers reached out to students and their families to calculate how many students had access. Between 50 and 75 percent of the school's approximately 105 students do not have internet at home, or the access is not adequate. Some schools have gone above and beyond in providing for their students and their families. Educators have had to find new ways to connect with their students and attempt to stay relevant in their lives. Schools provide much more than just an in-class education, many have provided support by creating food hampers or sending grocery vouchers and gift cards to families to help with groceries.

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

Regional centers are homes to larger medical facilities with doctors and some specialists. All 33 Athabaskan communities are connected to the hospital in Yellowknife, which is where the medical emergency transportation would take you. This time of year, many communities are in their break-up season, communities that do not have all-season roads become fully isolated once again. Communities rely on winter-roads to access amenities in the regional centers. Access to medical support and a major hospital are a challenge and require flights. If a medical emergency required medical transportation to the territorial hospital a relative or escort for the injured or sick patient would not be allowed to travel with them. The territorial hospital had to prepare and plan for a wave of Covid-19-related illness from all corners of the territory. With limited respirators, ICU-space and isolation rooms, the territory was and is very vulnerable during this pandemic. Extended-care facilities are even more at risk as they are home to the most vulnerable and they were required to take even stronger measures to ensure the safety of their residents.