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‘We’ve done a good job:’ COVID-19 vaccinations begin for Labrador’s Inuit

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday that Canada is on track to deliver approximately 1.3 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines by the end of February, adding that vaccinations would “scale up” in February and that the government expects to have shots in the arms of all Canadians who want them by September – Jan 8, 2021

Barry Andersen is glad he didn’t faint Monday morning as he became one of the first people in Labrador’s Nunatsiavut region to receive a coronavirus vaccine.

“Full disclosure, I hate needles,” said Andersen, the AngajukKak or mayor of Makkovik, in an interview shortly after he got his shot. He said it didn’t hurt much at all, and he’s grateful he remained upright. “Everybody should be proud of me for that,” he said, laughing.

Joking aside, Andersen is deeply serious when he talks about what it means for his community, and for the Nunatsiavut region of Labrador, to be receiving the Moderna vaccine this week. Despite their challenges and vulnerabilities, all five communities in Nunatsiavut kept COVID-19 outside their borders, he said.

“It’s a historic day for sure,” he said. “It was a pretty scary situation that we were facing.”

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Nunatsiavut has a population of about 2,500 people, with about 375 in Makkovik. Health authorities will be in the five Nunatsiavut communities this week, offering shots to anyone over 17 years old, with priority given to health-care workers and seniors.

Makkovik, Rigolet, Postville, Hopedale, and Nain are spread out along Labrador’s north coast, connected to the rest of Labrador only by snowmobile trails. Travel in and out of the communities is largely done by air or by sea, which means emergency medical trips are weather-dependent, Andersen said.

Meanwhile, Makkovik has just two nurses, he said. “If things went sideways here and got out of control, it would have been a bad situation, given what happened here in the past,” he said.

Andersen said watching the COVID-19 pandemic first kill tens of thousands of people in Italy and then hundreds of thousands in the U.S. has been terrifying, especially given Labrador’s own history with global pandemics. In 1918, the Spanish flu arrived in the region on a cargo ship from St. John’s. The disease spread rapidly, killing about a third of Labrador’s Indigenous population and decimating the entire town of Okak. Its few survivors were ultimately forced to move to neighbouring towns on the coast such as Nain and Hopedale.

In a tweet following Makkovik’s first COVID-19 vaccination Monday morning, given to Inuit elder William Ford, Andersen paid tribute to Okak. “A lot of our elders still have memories of that time, and that pandemic,” he said in an interview. “Those memories are quite fresh.”

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Further up the coast, the community of Nain asked non-essential visitors to “stay away” entirely when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Newfoundland and Labrador last spring. In a recent interview, Joe Dicker, Nain’s AngajukKak, said it wasn’t easy to put those restrictions in place, and it wasn’t easy to make sure they were followed.

“It was, ‘Who’s gonna come, who’s gonna listen, who’s gonna abide by the rules? Who’s gonna challenge the system?”‘ he said. “But overall, the people . . . abided by the rules as best they can.” The Nunatsiavut government also asked all visitors to the region to self-isolate for 14 days, even if they were permitted to enter the rest of the province without quarantining. “That was like a double protection for us,” Dicker said.

Residents of Nain are due to start receiving their vaccines Friday. Before that, health officials will be in Rigolet to vaccinate people Tuesday and then fly to Postville and Hopedale Wednesday.

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Overall, Dicker agrees with Andersen that Nunatsiavut is a real success story when it comes to keeping the pandemic at bay. “We’ve done a good job,” he said.

Gerald Asivak, minister of health with the Nunatsiavut government, agrees. “I’m feeling so happy. I can’t even put it into words,” he said in an interview Monday following Makkovik’s first vaccinations. “We’ve been waiting a long time for this.”

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 11, 2021.