03/30/2020 11:46 EDT

Spanish Flu Shook Labrador Inuit For Generations. I'm Not Sure We're Ready For COVID-19.

We have learned what pandemics can do to communities not prepared for such events.

As COVID-19 reaches Newfoundland and Labrador, where my fellow Inuit and family live, I wonder if we are ready.

There are new reports every day. At least 135 cases have been confirmed in Newfoundland and Labrador. At least one case has been linked to Happy Valley-Goose Bay — a town Inuit from the coast must pass through when travelling most anywhere in the region. 

Inuit across Canada’s Arctic fear COVID-19. We have learned what pandemics can do to communities not prepared for such events. The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 taught us that. Today’s novel coronavirus is every bit as scary, as it could repeat history. 

Chris P. Sampson/Nunatsiavut Government
Nain, N.L. is where my family is from.

In the last week of October 1918, Inuit from camps surrounding Okak, N.L. began gathering in town anticipating the arrival of the SS Harmony, a ship owned by the Moravian Church. The vessel would arrive from St. John’s on Nov. 4 with supplies for the churches and stores.

It also brought mail. For the mission stations it serviced — Hebron, Nutak, Ramah, Nain (where I’m from), Hopedale and Okak — the ship was also a source of information. The First World War had just ended, and residents of Okak hadn’t heard any news from the outside world.

Unknowingly, one of the ship’s crew had the Spanish Flu, and carried it with them from ship to shore. The Harmony’s crew loaded up on supplies from Okak — char, cod, seal fur, seal oil and whale oil — and sailed off into the sunset. Likewise, several families that camped near Okak left the community for their winter camps.

Hulton Deutsch via Getty Images
The Moravian Church's SS Harmony, pictured in Labrador.

There, nobody at that time knew about the global Spanish Flu pandemic. In less than a week, people started getting sick and dying. There were no clear symptoms. Because of this, nobody knew who was sick and who wasn’t. The flu seemed to hit older people in Okak in particular.

Survivors say it was a frightening time. Those with the flu would often seem to stop working, first, then just die. Their dogs roamed, starving. They would break into homes and eat the dead bodies inside.

My late grandfather, Isaac Suarak, was four years old when Spanish Flu hit Okak. Like many survivors, he didn’t talk about the event. Maybe he just didn’t want to.

Another survivor, Martha Okkoatsiak, said she was about eight when the flu killed her parents. She was left to take care of her baby brother. Okkoatsiak’s brother died in her arms. She blamed herself, because she didn’t know how to take care of him.

Delphine AURES via Getty Images
The Moravian mission church in Hebron, N.L. The Spanish Flu killed 86 of the community's 100 residents.

It wasn’t long before there were fewer survivors than those who had died of Spanish Flu. The community tried keeping the dead in one house, but there were too many. Moravian Church members and survivors burned the bodies.

Okak closed down the following years, along with Nutak, Killinik and Ramah. People moved to Hebron, where the Moravians had a station. The same Inuit who arrived in Hebron were relocated to Nain in 1959 by the Newfoundland Government.

All told, the Spanish Flu had killed a third of the Inuit in Northern Labrador.

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A century later, we’re facing another global pandemic — COVID-19. Is our community better prepared than we were in 1918? 

People seem to assume that isolated Inuit communities will not be affected, compared to people living in urban settings like Ottawa, Montreal or Toronto (where many Inuit live now, too). But after generations of living off the land, seas and air, Inuit immune systems tend to be susceptible to diseases like influenza, tuberculosis and other viruses.  

I am very concerned for elderly citizens and people with health issues in Northern Labrador.

The Nunatsiavut Government has taken precautions by discouraging non-essential travel between Labrador Inuit communities and telling us to avoid social events. Governments at all three levels have given Inuit the same advice they have given urban dwellers — self-isolate for 14 days. 

Unlike 1918, Inuit in Northern Labrador now have access to social media, news and long-distance phones to keep up to date on events like COVID-19. 

This isolation has been hard on us. Socially, Inuit are used to greeting people with hugs. We travel between communities to see friends and family. Now we’re being told to stop hugging and kissing. For faraway communities throughout Inuit lands, living in isolation also comes at a cost. Food must be flown in, and prices can be very expensive at the local grocery stores.

I am very concerned for elderly citizens and people with health issues in Northern Labrador. In a typical Inuk community, unity is strength. Helping others, especially the handicapped and the elderly, is a daily routine. Since fear of illness, these visits have been reduced drastically to keep our elders safe.

There is no cure, yet. Until there is one, I feel Northern Labrador communities are not ready. I think this needs better medical planning from the government.

Getting medical assistance is already difficult for isolated communities. Small health clinics have opened in Nain, Hopedale, Makkovik, Postville and Rigolet, but there are no doctors on site. They’re each run by a single nurse and would not be sufficient for isolating someone with the novel coronavirus. For serious illnesses, we have to travel to Happy Valley-Goose Bay by plane, or even further to St. John’s for life-threatening medical conditions.

We can only follow protocol and pray that it can be contained to a minimum.

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