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The last place in North America without Coronavirus: Nunavut

Mountain range in Nunavut

PortandTerminal.com, May 8, 2020

IQALUIT, NUNAVUT – Every single state in America has COVID-19 infections. The same goes for Canada. Every province has the virus – even far up north, the Yukon and Northwest Territories next to Alaska have confirmed infections. There’s only one place in all of North America that is still virus-free and that place is Nunavut.

Nunavut is a massive, sparsely populated territory of northern Canada, forming most of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

Welcome to Nunavut

Iqaluit airport in Nunavut
The only way in is by airplane. Iqaluit airport in Nunavut is the territory’s largest.

Nunavut is a massive, sparsely populated territory of northern Canada, forming most of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Measuring over 800,000 square miles, it is about twice the size of Texas and California combined.

What’s its secret to keeping the virus away? It turns out, isolation, a low population and good government are all it takes to beat this bug.

Nunavut's capital Iqaluit
Nunavut’s capital Iqaluit

Getting Around

Outside of the capital Iqaluit, the airports drop-off in size quickly. Photo: Kugluktuk’s (Pop. 1,491) Airport, Nunavut

The only way to get to Nunavut is to fly in or come in by sea. There are no roads or trains from southern Canada into Nunavut. Ottawa to Iqaluit is 1,250 miles and a direct flight takes about 3 hours. Just about everything gets shipped in by sea or as air cargo which makes groceries insanely expensive. Hunting is an important source of protein for most people in Nunavut.

Once you’re there, getting around in Nunavut isn’t easy either. There are no roads or trains connecting its 25 small communities either. Locals travel between communities is by air, boat, and in winter, snowmobiles.

People use cars in Nunavut to move around within their communities but not outside of them. There are no roads connecting communities. Cars are all shipped in by sea.

People use cars in Nunavut to move around within their communities but not outside them. There are no roads connecting communities. Cars are all brought in by sea and are expensive to ship in. People value tough, reliable, and easy to maintain vehicles above all else. One tip: White vehicles are harder to see in blizzards so are best avoided.

People

Boys at shoreline. Cargo ship in background
Boys at the Dock, Arviat, Nunavut (photo by Paul Aningat/©Canadian Son via flickr)

The first people arrived in what is today Nunavut about 1,000 years ago and are called the Thule people. The territory that we call Nunavut today is actually quite a modern invention. On April 1, 1999, the map of Canada was re-drawn and the Northwest Territories were divided into two territories to allow for the creation of Nunavut, a homeland for Canada’s Inuit.

Stop sign in 3 languages. Snowy city in background.
The official languages are Inuit, English and French.

There are only 65,000 people in Nunavut, most of whom live in 25 small communities. About 84% of the people there are Inuit, the rest are mostly Canadians of other different ethnic backgrounds. The official languages are Inuit, English and French. Most people speak Inuit (84%) and English is widely spoken too – French more rarely so.

Map of Nunavut

The capital Iqaluit has a population of 7,250. The other 24 communities in Nunavut vary in size and are widely spread out across the vast territory. The second-largest community is Rankin Inlet with 2,842 people. Grise Fiord, the most northern community, is home to just 129 people. All communities except Baker Lake (pop. 2,069), a mining community, are located on the coast to facilitate access to the outside world.

COVID-19 Precautions in Nunavut

Cape Dorset, Nunavut

Last week, Nunavut announced that its first presumptive COVID-19 case had been deemed a false positive. For now, that leaves Nunavut as the last state, territory or province in all of North America without a single case of coronavirus.

The government in Nunavut isn’t taking its good fortune in being virus-free for granted.

Were the virus to make its way here it would spread like fire through the many crowded, poor quality homes in which over half of the citizens of the region live. The relatively poor living conditions of Canada’s native people is a national disgrace and a source of anger for many.

“If someone needs hospitalization (in Nunavut) then they need to wait for an air ambulance. This could take hours or days. If many people are sick in the meantime this could mean that they die waiting.”  

Dr. Anna Banerji, Toronto pediatrician

It’s feared that given the scarcity of health resources and insecure access to food and water in parts of the region, COVID-19 could decimate small and isolated Nunavut communities. 

Officials know all too well from previous experience with swine flu and even tuberculosis, that pathogens like COVID-19 hit Nunavut harder than other communities.

Over half the population in Nunavut live in crowded, inadequate housing

Lockdown

Police officers standing in front of pickup truck. Snow. Surgical masks.
Kugluktuk’s peace officers enforce, among other things, Nunavut’s Public Health Act order that restricts mass gatherings. (Photo courtesy of the Kugluktuk Peace Officers)

Nunavut has declared a state of public health emergency that is in effect until May 14th and may be extended.

As of March 24th, only Nunavut residents and critical workers are allowed into the territory. Prior to even boarding a plane into the territory, residents need to undergo a mandatory 14-day isolation period in either Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton or Yellowknife. 

A ship unloads fuel. Tied to yellow bollard on rocky shore
A ship unloads fuel in Nunavut in the summer of 2019. (Photo courtesy of PPD)

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