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How Arctic Communities Took Their Own Measures on COVID-19

Utqiagvik alaska barrow
The milepost marker in Utqiagvik, Alaska, formerly known as Barrow (Andrei Taranchenko, 2008 / CC 2.0)

By Mia Bennett 08-30-2020 07:02:54

Across the Arctic each summer, thousands of tourists and scientists descend upon the region’s villages, research stations, and glaciers. This summer, however, as the coronavirus pandemic rages worldwide, the Arctic has returned to its quieter rhythms, recalling a time before the age of mass tourism and climate change science. With travel into and out of the region still heavily restricted in many areas, residents have their communities to themselves.

Remoteness has made much of the Arctic, apart from Russia, a coronavirus success story. Highlighting the benefits of being disconnected during a global pandemic, northern locales that have best weathered the coronavirus storm are those that have been able to quickly sever their transportation ties with the outside world. Greenland made headlines in April when it became one of the first countries in the world to defeat coronavirus. Iceland also brought its pandemic under control and in June became one of the first countries to reopen to tourism, albeit in a limited and controlled fashion.

The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard has still not had a single coronavirus case. In April, the manager of Longyearbyen’s convenience store, Ronny Strømnes, remarked to High North News, “It is no longer a question about whether or not the corona virus will spread to Svalbard, but rather a question about when.” Over four months later, that “when” still has not arrived. That could change, however, given that the archipelago reopened to tourists from numerous European countries on August 12.

Nunavut has also had zero coronavirus cases. The Canadian territory has no roads to the rest of the country and can only be reached by plane or ship (or snowmachine, dog team, or on foot, if you’re really intrepid). All people planning to travel to Nunavut must undergo a mandatory 14-day isolation period in either Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton or Yellowknife, which helps keep the virus at bay, in southern Canada where hospitals are better prepared.

And while Russia has one of the highest numbers of infections in the world, the far-flung region of Chukotka, which faces the Bering Sea and which has no road access to the rest of Russia, has only seen 159 cases (granted, its population is only ~50,000). Other parts of Siberia and the Russian Arctic that are better connected and which have sizable fly-in, fly-out labor forces, like the gas-rich Yamal Peninsula, have had much higher incidence rates.

For Svalbard, Nunavut, Chukotka, and many other parts of the Arctic, their disconnectedness has been one of their saving graces during the pandemic. Yet roads are gradually inching their way forward across the tundra. Over the past decade, work has slowly been progressing on the Anadyr Highway to connect Chukotka to the rest of Russia’s road network, while there are also tentative plans to connect Nunavut to Manitoba.

In recent years in roadless communities in places like Canada, as I explored in my research in the Northwest Territories, as Elders who remember the times before settlement have passed away, public support has grown for building new roads to the outside. Post-pandemic, those attitudes may shift.


Post-pandemic, there may be less enthusiasm for connecting roadless communities across the Arctic. Photo: Mia Bennett

Learning from oral histories of past pandemics

Apart from capitalizing on their remoteness, many Arctic communities’ quick decisions to lock down and close their borders can also be attributed to past experiences of devastating pandemics originating from contact with the outside world, often within living memory.

On June 11, 1900, for instance, a steamer arrived to the island of St. Paul, Alaska in the Pribilof Islands carrying supplies and relatives from nearby St. George. The two islands formed the hub of Alaska’s fur seal industry, which was so lucrative that it quickly recuperated the $7.2 million the U.S. spent on purchasing Alaska from Russia in 1867. Given the islands’ imbrication into national and global commodity circuits, just like the oil fields in Alaska and Russia where coronavirus has broken out, the well-connected islands experienced two outbreaks of influenza and measles in quick session in the summer of 1900.

Five days after the steamer arrived to St. Paul, influenza besieged the community. With nearly the entire Aleut population ailing, no men that season were able to participate in the seasonal seal drive. An outbreak of measles followed a few weeks later, likely brought by a ship from the nearby village of Unalaska. This disease had an even more severe impact, with only two people out of the entire population of approximately 200 Aleuts not bedridden, as scientist Robert Wolfe recounts in a study on “Alaska’s Great Sickness.” The few Euro-American employees on the island escaped illness entirely, likely thanks to their previous exposure to similar diseases and their more spacious accommodations.

In Arctic Indigenous communities, information about these traumatic pandemics has been passed down through oral histories that are informing strategies regarding how to deal with coronavirus. During the Virtual Conference on COVID-19’s Impacts on the Arctic organized by the U.S. Naval War College, the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute, and the U.S. Arctic Research Commission this past May, the audience heard firsthand from Kaare Sikuaq Ericksen, who serves as the North Slope Science Liaison for the Ukpea?vik Inupiat Corporation in Utqia?vik, Alaska. He retold a story he’d often heard growing up concerning how the village of Shishmaref, just north of the Bering Strait, dealt with the 1918 epidemic. Ericksen recounted,

“They heard that something bad was coming in 1918…They put up watchtowers outside of their village, armed guards, and they were told to ‘shoot on sight’ if people approached. It’s a famous example of where they put a stop – they put extreme measures – to that 1918 epidemic right there so that it didn’t travel further north…That story has been repeated over and over on social media lately. It’s something that we grew up hearing and it set the stage for how villages like Shihsmaref reacted. We’re able to say, ‘We took extreme measures in the past and it worked. We need to take extreme measures now.'”

A little over a hundred years later, as the coronavirus pandemic spread from Asia to Europe and North America, communities in rural Alaska took early measures to close their borders. On March 18, the mayor of the North Slope Borough, Harry Brower, Jr., issued an emergency order declaring, “Given the importance of protecting our people from the threat of this harmful communicable disease, I have determined that it is in the interests of the North Slope Borough to take action to restrict and suspend entry into our communities. We endeavor not to endure, but to prevent the presence of the Coronavirus from spreading to the North Slope of Alaska.”

Boris Johnson, it should be noted, did not lock down the United Kingdom until March 23.

Some cases have still occurred on the North Slope, including a recent spate at the Alpine oil field outside the village of Nuiqsut. But generally, the statistics illustrate that the Alaskan Arctic and the Aleutians have been spared the worst of the pandemic thanks to heeding the lessons learned from past tragedies.

International support for keeping the Arctic virus-free

Scientists and international organizations working in the Arctic have generally supported the local, bottom-up efforts in the region to keep the virus out.

Ongoing expeditions like the massive €140 million, German-funded MOSAiC icebreaker expedition that began in October 2019 to drift with the pack ice in order to gather a continuous record for one year of various Arctic environmental phenomena changed their plans in order to comply with new regulations meant to contain the spread of coronavirus. Since Norwegian air travel restrictions meant that a crew change was no longer possible in Svalbard, instead, the Polarstern vessel sailed south to meet two other German ships offshore to carry out the crew change, while many other scientists extended their stay on board by two months. This change of plans meant that the MOSAiC expedition had to sacrifice its goal of collecting an unbroken 12-month record of data. Doing so, however, protected the safety of those onboard the ship and the people living in Svalbard.

Meanwhile, plans for new fieldwork campaigns in places like Greenland and Alaska have been postponed indefinitely. In March, the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs announced that it would not be “business-as-usual for either the Arctic or Antarctic research enterprise for the foreseeable future,” and underscored that “it is vital that polar research and operations do not introduce COVID-19 to remote polar regions where medical capabilities are limited and would be quickly overwhelmed.”

Similarly in early April, the International Association of Arctic Social Scientists published a statement on the pandemic’s impacts and responses and urged researchers to avoid travel to Arctic communities “to prevent the spread of COVID-19 until all risks are eliminated.” The statement further warned this could necessitate delays of over 12 months.

The Arctic Council, too, has taken on a strong leadership role during the pandemic. The briefing document released for Senior Arctic Officials in June emphasizes the need for both high-tech data sharing and oral traditions, which help ensure that “historical memories and communtiy resilience is passed on to youth.”

The Arctic’s local and national governments and its international organizations thus demonstrate a willingness to borrow from both traditional knowledge and Western science in countering the pandemic. They also exhibit a desire to work with people living in the region to avoid repeating past mistakes associated with colonialism. Today, when the science says that coronavirus is a highly contagious respiratory disease, those working in Arctic science or government circles listen. And when an Elder recounts stories about how outbreaks of disease like the Spanish flu in 1918 killed many of his relatives, they often listen, too.

Can Arctic communities hold down the fort against coronavirus in 2021?

Arctic communities will not be able to keep the rest of the world out forever. The pressure on them to reopen is only going to increase in the coming months, both from within and without.


Images like this one of cruise ships docked in Juneau, Alaska are a fleeting memory for now, but may reappear next summer. Photo: Mia Bennett (Sept. 2018)

Already this summer, Norwegian cruise line Hurtigruten tried – and failed miserably – to restart Arctic expedition cruises. After MS Roald Amundsen docked in Tromsø – but before it made it to Svalbard, fortunately – over 40 passengers tested positive for COVID-19. The outbreak led the Norwegian government to immediately ban cruises with more than 100 people on board from disembarking for two weeks. Alaska’s first cruise of the season was also cut short in early August after a passenger tested positive, leading the entire season to be cancelled.

In light of these issues, French luxury cruise line Ponant appears to have backtracked with trying to still offer its fully-booked, 23-day, €20,000 per passenger cruise via the Northwest Passage, which planned to visit villages in Greenland, Canada, and Alaska. However, its 25-day cruise along the Northeast Passage from Tromsø to Nome is still going ahead and will depart 31 August.

Hurtigruten and Ponant are eagerly accepting bookings for next summer. In June and July 2021, Hurtigruten’s ill-fated MV Roald Amundsen plans to sail twice along an itinerary that will take passengers to nearly a dozen small settlements along the Inner Passage, in the Aleutians, and along the Bering Strait. The cruise will visit places like the aforementioned village of St. Paul, Alaska, so devastated by the Great Epidemic in 1900. Today, its population numbers fewer than 500 people and the island has no hospital; only a health clinic.

MV Roald Amundsen’s itinerary for planned cruises in June and July 2021. Many of the villages it might visit do not even have a hospital. (Hurtigruten)

The Arctic Council’s report on coronavirus stresses that later waves of a pandemic can be more aggressive than earlier ones. While the 1918 Spanish flu did not reach the municipality of Arjeplog in northern Sweden until 1920, the report explains, the area had the highest overall mortality rate in all of Sweden.

While the coronavirus is mutating into possibly deadlier strains, people’s tolerance for lockdowns and quarantines is wearing thin. Local economies are struggling, especially those based on tourism or science, as has become more common in the Arctic in recent years. Charting a way forward will not be easy, but in the Arctic, the willingness of communities to listen to their Elders and of regional officials to listen to local and Indigenous populations is promising.

The Arctic is diverse, and its communities have experienced the pandemic in different ways. Yet at a broad scale, the Arctic could emerge as a model for how to deal with a pandemic in remote reaches of the world. Whether that model can be exported to places experiencing similar conditions like the Amazon may prove to be the next challenge.

Mia Bennett is an assistant professor in the University of Hong Kong's Department of Geography and School of Modern Languages & Cultures. She specializes in the politics of infrastructure development in the Arctic and combines fieldwork and remote sensing in her research.

This article appears courtesy of Cryopolitics and is reproduced here in an abbreviated form. It may be found in its original form here.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.