Russian Arctic indigenous people also suffer from COVID | Polarjournal

CORRECTION: In our article about the COVID outbreaks among Russian Arctic peoples, we wrote that the author of the study listed a genetic predisposition as one of the reasons for a weaker immune system. This statement is incorrect and we have corrected the relevant part. Pavel Devyatkin lists the so-called “civilization immunity”, i.e. the thousands of years of isolation of indigenous peoples from the rest of the world. However, this isolation is not synonymous with “genetic predisposition”. We deeply apologize for this unintentional mistake.

Most places in the Russian Far East can be reached only by plane or ship. In winter, when the ground is frozen, vehicles can cross the tundra on winter roads. But despite the remoteness, COVID has established itself in all Russian Arctic areas, leading to high infection rates. Photo: Heiner Kubny

The COVID pandemic has the whole world in its grip. The virus also is rampant in the Arctic regions of Canada, Alaska, Greenland and the Nordic countries, with all its consequences. But you hardly hear anything from the largest part of the Arctic, the Russian Arctic regions. These regions along the Northeast Passage may be too remote, and the places are safer due to lockdowns and reduced travel. This assumption is wrong, and some of the areas in the Russian Arctic have the highest case numbers in Russia, according to a study.

The study, published by Pavel Devyatkin, a Research Associate at The Arctic Institute, concludes that indigenous people in the Russian Arctic are not only more affected by COVID in terms of health, but also suffer particularly badly economically and socially, but unnoticed by the West. The success of the relief efforts, which were partly organized by Moscow, partly by the own regional government, was highly dependent on local infrastructure and resources, Devyatkin writes.

In the Murmansk region, up to 20 percent of workers contracted COVID in spring at the construction site of the supply base for Russia’s prestige Arctic LNG-2 project. In other regions where work projects are under way, the local population also has been exposed to a higher risk of contagion, as there were links between workers and residents. Photo: Novatek

The COVID pandemic has been active in the Russian Far East since spring, unlike in other Arctic regions. Particularly affected are those areas where the largest oil and gas production facilities are located. These include the Murmansk and Yamal Nenets regions. There, the figures are highest compared to the rest of Russia. For example, the Yamal-Nenets region reports more than 28,000 cases (population: about 544,000), Murmansk even 30,000 (as of Dec 10), the Krasnoyarsk region (2.8 million inhabitants) more than 40,000 cases. Kamchatka and Sacha are also regions with very high numbers of cases. It is probable that the disease was introduced with workers from abroad and from southern regions. The spread was facilitated by slow measures and half-hearted implementation by the authorities and those affected, Devyakin continues. The fact that indigenous populations are much more susceptible to the virus due to a weaker immune system has also led to higher cases. Devyakin attributes this weakening to poorer living conditions, inadequate nutrition and increased alcoholism and respiratory diseases. The proximity and importance of family ties and social contacts is another reason for the increased prevalence.

Older people tend to be more at risk of dying from COVID than younger people. This brings an irretrievable cultural loss. In Russia, too, elder people are the guardians of local culture and language. Picture: Michael Wenger

In addition to the health consequences of COVID disease, however, there have been higher social and cultural losses due to the pandemic in the Russian Arctic. In particular, the deaths of many elderly people, which still preserved the cultural heritage of the local population, lead to irreparable damage to the identity of the locals. COVID has also left its mark socially, Devyakin continues. Officials say cases of suicide, depression and domestic violence have risen sharply in the regions. Since school activities were also discontinued, young people could hardly move. In addition to the bans on visits and social isolation, there were also bans on fishing and hunting, traditional activities that are vital to the population. In many places, self-sufficiency is essential.

In large parts of the Russian Arctic, people are reindeer nomads who move from pasture to pasture with their herds. Although the authorities have come to their aid in part as well, the damage, especially economically caused by the elimination of trade, plus isolation, are large mortgages for the future. Photo: Heiner Kubny

In this respect, the authorities’ ban on reindeer herders to trade at construction sites and places was also a serious economic blow to the population. This is how one of the most important sources of income of the traditional reindeer nomads was lost. Financial aid from the regional authorities depended very much on the wealth of the region, so that many families came in distress. Aid in the teaching of schools also depends on the region. While laptops with internet access are handed over to students in Yamal, students in neighbouring Yakutia have to write everything on paper and hand them back in at the schools. In his final assessment, Pavel Devyatkin writes that the risk of social and cultural damage is enormous in the long run. Although the government in Moscow had made the strengthening of the indigenous population in the Arctic one of its main objectives during its Presidency of the Arctic Council, action must follow the words in the near future.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

Link to the study:

Pavel Devyatkin: Vulnerable Communities: How has the COVID-19 Pandemic affected Indigenous People in the Russian Arctic?; The Arctic Institute

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