Jessica Shadian: COVID-19 has given most Canadians a taste of what Northerners face on a daily basis

This is a repost of the original article which appeared on the National Post :

These are not “normal” times, so many of us think, and so we (in southern Canada) are told.

Last week, on a conference call for a project on the infrastructure gap in the Canadian North, someone stated that, until the COVID-19 crisis, he had never thought about hospital bed availability. He was calling from Toronto. Indeed, for most southern Canadians, the past couple months have not been normal. It is the first time that many families have experienced waking up in the mornings with a nagging sense of insecurity about the most basic critical infrastructure we rely on for our survival. In normal times, they do not have daily conversations with family and colleagues about hospital bed numbers, access to emergency services and global food supply chains.

Yet, for the vast majority of Canadians in the North, many of whom are Indigenous, daily discussions about access to medical services, potable water, the internet, energy and food availability (due to lack of roads, airports and ports) are not abnormal. Paying $12 for eight rolls of toilet paper in Nunavut does not send its premier on a tirade about price gouging during a pandemic. That’s how much toilet paper costs. Empty or half-empty shelves are also normal as shops depend on a host of unpredictable and contingent factors, including the season and whether the three sea lifts per year can make it through the Northwest Passage to deliver critical supplies.

With the arrival of COVID-19, Nunavut had no choice but to place the entire territory on lockdown. In a region where travelling is always an arduous and expensive affair, and the food supply chain is precarious at the best of times, the choice was not inconsequential: residents who were outside the territory at the time, for reasons including giving birth, spent weeks trying to get home. But given that the most basic amenities that keep citizens and communities safe, healthy and able to function economically are either insufficient, scant or altogether absent in Nunavut, the government had no choice but to completely lock it down, in the hopes of preventing the virus from spreading and overwhelming its already precarious health system and supply chains.

At the Iqaluit Qikiqtani General Hospital, the only acute care facility in Nunavut, there are 35 beds serving 16,000 people living in 12 communities that are spread over one million square kilometres. Residents of the remaining 10 communities must leave Nunavut if they require hospital care. That means travelling by commercial airline, if it is not an emergency, or via medevac, if it is. A journey can take several days, depending on flight availability and the weather. Imagine the time, money and logistics required just to receive a CT scan.

When it comes to the internet, many Canadians were surprised to learn that Zoom — the WeWork of the COVID-19 era — has security lapses, adding additional stress to the connectivity issues caused by four or five members of the same family trying to stream various work- or school-related things at the same time. In the North, however, not a single household has internet speeds that would be considered “standard” in the rest of Canada. That is for those who are fortunate enough to have internet access at all. Many Northern communities are not connected to an electricity grid and much of the North, including the whole of Nunavut, has no access to fibre-optic broadband. Even before COVID-19, downloading a PDF was a major challenge. As for video conferencing, that is not even possible at the best of times.

Since the lockdown, many children in the North have found themselves without access to any education at all. The Nunavut government asked teachers to print and disseminate lessons to primary school students, because online schooling is simply not an option.

COVID-19 is indiscriminate — anyone can become infected, and although it affects older people the most, even young adults have been hospitalized and even died. As terrifying as this is, not many Canadians worry that their entire city could succumb to the virus. But in a remote community, the consequences could be decimating. Nunavut’s critical housing shortages have resulted in extended families living together under one roof, which means that there is no place to go into quarantine if one of them becomes ill. Add that to a tuberculosis rate among Inuit that is 290 times higher than for non-Indigenous Canadians.

At this moment, when all Canadians are worrying about our food supply chains, it is an ideal time to rethink how “we” as a collective want Canada to come out the other end of this crisis. When the federal infrastructure stimulus begins, rather than hockey rinks, maybe we can reflect on the importance of critical infrastructure for our health, safety and security and question whether the Northern normal is really normal at all.

Jessica Shadian is the president and CEO of Arctic360, which works with government and the private sector to attract investment to the North, and a distinguished senior fellow at the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History at the University of Toronto.

Source: https://nationalpost.com/opinion/jessica-shadian-covid-19-has-given-most-canadians-a-taste-of-what-northerners-face-on-a-daily-basis (National Post)

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