News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Journal Launch Highlights Lessons for Future Arctic Pandemic Preparedness

| Sep. 25, 2023

The COVID-19 pandemic was a global phenomenon, but its impacts in the Arctic, and the experiences of Arctic communities, were distinct.

In September 2023, the Arctic Initiative hosted the official launch of “Arctic Pandemics: COVID-19 and Other Pandemic Experiences and Lessons Learned,” an Arctic Yearbook special issue that examines the health, social, cultural, and economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Arctic. The webinar was moderated by the volume’s editors: Jennifer Spence, Arctic Initiative Senior Fellow; Heather Exner-Pirot, Macdonald Laurier Senior Fellow; and Andrey Petrov, ARCTICenter Director and Associate Professor at the University of Northern Iowa.

More than 80 experts contributed to the volume’s 15 peer-reviewed articles and ten shorter submissions. The launch was an opportunity for authors to share experiences and insights that may inform preparedness for future pandemics. Read on for their key takeaways. 

Stresses

At the peak of the pandemic, even the most prepared hospitals experienced shortages in resources and personnel. Through in-depth interviews with healthcare providers in Yukon, Liris Smith and Mark Christopher found that frontline workers in remote Northern communities experienced extremely high levels of personal and work-related burnout. Women and nurses were disproportionally affected by burnout at work and at home. 

Women throughout the Arctic experienced heightened vulnerability in various spheres during the pandemic, including greater occupational exposure to COVID-19 infection, economic vulnerability, and disproportionate victimization in domestic violence compared to their male counterparts. Marya Rozanova-Smith, Laura Goodfield, and Annissa Ozbek found that existing frameworks for analyzing COVID-19 gendered impacts and gendered policy responses focused primarily on physical, occupational, and financial health. They recommended that future public health responses should prioritize a holistic concept of health and wellness.

Successes

Arctic mortality rates generally remained below respective national levels, despite pre-existing vulnerabilities faced by Arctic communities (remoteness, limited healthcare options, underlying health issues, and other compounding factors), according to analysis by a team of researchers led by Andrey Petrov. The parts of the Arctic that prioritized early and efficient vaccine distribution saw a decline in mortality, demonstrating that swift and coordinated efforts to implement safety measures within a community can significantly impact the overall level of resilience.

Culturally grounded strategies allowed many Inuit communities to buffer the social, economic, and mental health impacts of the pandemic. Selma Ford, Robyn Long, and John Crump documented how Inuit communities in Labrador, Canada, working with the regional government, applied lessons learned during the 1918 influenza outbreak. During the COVID-19 pandemic, epidemiological trends showed significantly lower infection rates in Inuit regions due in part to social distance protocols and high vaccination rates. Their research also found blatant health inequalities faced by Inuit communities, including lack of infrastructure, housing, and access to clean water, food, and Internet connectivity. Despite these challenges, community members still proved highly adaptable. “These achievements show that Inuit self-determination is the foundation for preparing for future pandemics,” said Ford.

The economies of Arctic countries have recovered from the shocks of the pandemic more quickly than expected, according to an Oulu Business School research team led by Jaakko Simonen. During the height of the pandemic, Arctic countries implemented various types of lockdown policies to inhibit the spread of the virus; as a result, the pandemic had an asymmetrical impact on individuals, communities, and regions. The labor market initially took a significant hit, but by the summer of 2022, unemployment rates in the five Arctic cities studied had returned to pre-COVID levels.

However, Daria Burnasheva cautioned that there are limits to community resilience. The pandemic severely tested essential aspects of human wellbeing, such as access to basic health services, education, food and goods, transportation, and economic development. Indigenous communities and remote, hard-to-reach areas were particularly hard-hit. “The communities in our study area had to deal with and adapt to the combined effects of the pandemic, climate change, and disruptive industries. And therefore, it is important to recognize that adaption is not always a matter of choice,” said Burnasheva.

State of Knowledge

Less than three years since the start of the pandemic, society is already beginning to experience “amnesia” around the pandemic. Through a survey of COVID-19-focused research published between 2020 and 2022, Jennifer Spence and Sneha Venkata Krishnan found that there was a decline in new research surrounding the virus even as COVID-19 cases continued to spread, suggesting a collective readiness to move on from the pandemic.

Spence urged attendees to resist forgetting: “The lessons learned from [the COVID-19 pandemic] are not time-specific, and we should be taking the time to explore them and find mechanisms to share them across the Arctic.”


Watch the webinar recording below.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Varvares, Tessa and Elizabeth Hanlon. “Journal Launch Highlights Lessons for Future Arctic Pandemic Preparedness.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, September 25, 2023.

The Authors