What life is like in Nunavut, the only coronavirus-free place in Canada

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TORONTO -- While many parts of Canada are still grappling with newly confirmed cases or deaths from the novel coronavirus, Nunavut remains the only place in the country that has been able to keep its case load at zero.

But that doesn’t mean the massive and sparsely populated territory of some 36,000 residents in Canada’s High Arctic has room to let up in its fight against the deadly disease that has so far killed nearly 5,000 Canadians and infected more than 69,000 others.

Nunavut thought it had its first COVID-19 case on April 30, when it was initially reported that one person from Pond Inlet, a northern community on the upper tip of Baffin Island, had tested positive for the virus. But with further testing, it was revealed that the result had been a false positive.

But even with no confirmed cases, measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus in the territory are “stringent,” and mirror the restrictions in place in much harder-hit provinces like Quebec and Ontario, according to Iqaluit Mayor Kenny Bell.

“All of our schools are closed, including daycares. The stores are open, but they have put in some measures of two-metre distancing at the tills and that includes splashguards for their employees,” Bell said in an interview with CTV News’ Your Morning on Monday.

Another key measure Bell cited was the travel ban put in place on March 24 that only permits residents and essential workers to enter the territory. Anyone approved to travel into Nunavut must undergo a mandatory 14-day isolation period beforehand in either Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton or Yellowknife.

MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT RESTRICTIONS

Asked whether residents were frustrated for having to follow the same restrictions as the rest of the country when Nunavut has no active cases, Bell admitted feelings are mixed.

“Some people are happy about the restrictions, and some people aren’t. But we do know that if we get a case here in Nunavut, we will overwhelm our system. So we have to make sure we continue social distancing, so that when it does come, we can plank the curve.”

The fact that most of Nunavut’s 25 communities are geographically isolated and are only accessible by plane or boat may help explain why the territory still hasn’t recorded a single case of COVID-19. 

As Bell points out, living in isolation in a remote part of the country isn’t new for Nunavummiut, but dealing with pandemic measures has certainly made it harder.

“Northerners, we’re used to being isolated. That part isn’t really the big thing. But we do like to gather. No more than five people gathering at a time is a little bit stringent on us. It’s a little bit hard for all of us,” he said.

BUILT TO WITHSTAND CRISIS

Long before COVID-19 was declared a global health crisis, Canada was ranked near the top of the list of countries best-equipped to handle something like a deadly coronavirus outbreak. According to data surveyed in the 2019 Global Health Security Index, Canada ranked fifth overall in being able to properly handle and manage global catastrophic biological events.

While that ranking may change in a post-pandemic survey, what is clear is that not all Canadian provinces and territories are created equal. And Bell says that many social and economic problems that were already plaguing Nunavut’s most vulnerable are being amplified by COVID-19.

“We already know that more than half of Nunavut is already food-insecure, so that means there’s a lot of poverty here. We know for sure there would be a lot of vulnerable people that are living in less-than-ideal conditions currently,” he added.

Bell estimates that Nunavut still needs thousands of adequate homes to address the territory’s dire housing shortages.

OTHER ‘NUNAVUTS’ OUT THERE?

It may or may not come as a surprise that there are other places in the world that have no reported cases of the coronavirus. Aside from Nunavut, this BuzzFeed News report spotlights the tiny Pacific island of Nauru as one of them.

The story is also quick to point out that the island nation of 11,500 residents could be poised for disaster if COVID-19 does reach its shores and takes hold, as Nauru is ranked much lower than Canada on the 2019 Global Health Security Index, at 182 out of 195 countries listed.

Other countries that claim to be without any reported COVID-19 cases include North Korea, Turkmenistan and Lesotho. Several islands near Nauru are also on the list, including Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.