While Quebec focuses on outbreaks in bars, anti-maskers, and rule-breaking youths, Nunavik, the northernmost region, continues to face serious long-term challenges. And now, with the coronavirus threat, activists and health officials are asking the government to provide more help to Indigenous communities. Though the number of cases has remained low, Dr. Marie Rochette — Nunavik's director of public health — worries that Inuit communities are particularly at risk from the pandemic, often due to poor living conditions.
There have been 17 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the region, she said.
The latest was a traveller to the community of Salluit, population about 1,400, who was tested before their flight and was intercepted upon landing.
According to a statement from the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services (NRBHSS), the person was not showing any symptoms and was put into isolation.
"We know that residents of Nunavik are more affected by respiratory diseases than residents of the rest of the province," said Rochette, who spoke to MTL Blog from the community of Kuujjuaq, the largest in the region.
There are many explanations for this, said the doctor, including limited access to care, underlying health issues, overcrowded housing, and high rates of tobacco use, which may put people at greater risk for COVID-19.
"The different surveys done show the situation is worse in our region than in other regions of Quebec," she said.
The region is in the middle of a chronic and severe housing shortage.
According to the 2016 census, 52 percent of Nunavik residents were living in crowded conditions, one of the highest rates in the country.
With so many people living closely together, a coronavirus outbreak in one of these communities could be devastating, said Rochette.
"There are multi-generational homes in communities, grandmothers living with children and cousins," she said.
"So, it's a factor of vulnerability because elders are sometimes living with younger people, putting them more at risk of the infection."
Access to health services in the vast and sparsely populated region of about 13,000 residents, 90 percent of whom identify as Inuit, can be quite limited, said the doctor.
There are two hospitals and each of its 14 communities has a CLSC that can provide basic care but there are no intensive care units, which means sick people face long plane rides to the south for medical services, said Rochette.
"This is why the region is more vulnerable than other regions where hospitals and intensive care units are not so far," she said. "Being medevaced by plane, things can be delayed."
To protect residents, the Canadian Rangers were called in to help out and the region has imposed strict travel restrictions, she said.
There's also a strong sense of community in the north, which means "individuals are willing to put in effort to protect each other and they're involved," she said.
But Rochette said this crisis is not only affecting the health care system but many facets of life in the north and many municipalities want more funding to face it.
Thousands of people have signed an online petition calling for more resources to help Indigenous communities across Canada deal with the pandemic.
The change.org petition, which was launched in April, has gathered more than 56,000 signatures as of Tuesday morning.
The federal government initially pledged over $300 million to help Indigenous communities — part of a nationwide $82 investment, the CBC reported in March.
"This is simply unacceptable," reads the petition. "While there have been additional investments made for Indigenous communities many Indigenous leaders and health organizations are calling for more assistance and supplies."