The threat of Covid-19 has moved the community of Tulita to look inside itself for strength during this difficult time.
After the winter road closed on March 20, the Sahtu hamlet of about 500 people became effectively isolated except for a few flights a week. The first barge is scheduled to arrive along the Mackenzie River in July, deputy mayor Janet Bayha told NNSL Media.
This quiet, remote community facing the Mackenzie Mountains found itself in uncharted territory as the pandemic escalated.
“Everything happened so fast and suddenly there was a state of emergency,” said Bayha.
The hamlet dusted off its old flu pandemic emergency plan and designated the Tulita Community Arena as the triage location where people would be isolated if they’re infected with coronavirus. Local hotels would also be used as isolation spots for families in case of an outbreak.
New reality for community
Bayha said “reality kicked in maybe two weeks ago” when residents understood the seriousness of the pandemic.
“We’re realizing that everything is shut down, there’s got to be a reason why these things are shut down.”
The surreal nature of the pandemic was particularly brought home when Gabe Horassi, a highly respected Elder in his late 90s passed away on March 28. In line with social distancing protocols, and because Tulita’s two churches were already closed, a funeral service was held over the radio.
Four or five people carried out the burial in the graveyard while other mourners watched the scene from a distance inside their vehicles.
“It was very different than usual. Families had to stay apart and we couldn’t go to the burial site to pay our last respects,” said Bayha. “This was a learning as-we-go experience. The hardest part is because he was an Elder, not paying our last respects to that man.”
Relying on radio
Despite its isolation and unfamiliarity with such an abnormal state of affairs, Tulita is still running its nursing station, RCMP outpost, hamlet office, water treatment plant, garbage services and Northern Store.
Hamlet authorities are making efforts to keep people busy, with the local radio station as a key medium of communication.
“Our recreation department has been doing a lot of activities at home with the kids, the elderly and the public,” said Bayha. “We’re coming up with projects for them to do at home, like painting windows, Easter drawings, short stories, sculptures outside their houses. And we’re trying to do our traditional sewing, and arts with our youth and Elders.
“And we’re recording Elders telling stories about decades ago and the pandemics in the 1920s. We’re thinking about the kinds of projects we can do for our history and projects we can use for the future, with Elders speaking about them.
“We’re doing daily radio shows with a Covid coordinator we hired — in English and Slavey — with updates on the community with what’s happening. And keeping them engaged with contests and giving out prizes of cleaning supplies and gift cards for the Northern Store.”
With the churches closed, people lead daily prayers in English and Slavey on the radio at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.
The Northern Store has reduced its hours and is now open from noon to 5 p.m. To facilitate social distancing, the retailer only allows only 20 customers inside at once.
For the past two weeks the store has been running out of bread, milk and eggs because of lesser amounts of those items on plane shipments, Bayha said.
“There’s fear out there and confusion about running out but we were told by the Northern manager that he’s trying to get all we need. Now we get deliveries only twice a week, but there is fear that the planes might not come. That’s why people are stocking up on things. We have lots of Kleenex and paper towels but the bread, milk and eggs are going fast.”
There are no health professionals stationed permanently in Tulita. Three nurses come up for six-week rotations and doctors come through every three months.
“Since the pandemic started the doctors haven’t come yet. But the nurses agreed to stay another six weeks because they’re worried about the community and they don’t want new people coming in,” Bayha said.
The nurses have Covid-19 test swab kits and at least one person has been tested so far.
“They’re only testing people who have serious symptoms,” said Bayha.
Hamlet officials are working on plans to begin screening visitors at the airport. Bayha said most people flying into the community have been cooperative and respectful.
“They’ve been very good at sending the community their manifest and asking if it’s OK to come in,” she said. “At the hamlet we put in an essential service charter flight protocol. We ask them a whole bunch of questions before they come in for the charter services. One is how many employees are coming, where they’re coming in from, when they’re coming.”
Out on the land
Residents are coping well with social distancing even though they find it difficult to avoid socializing in such a small place.
But Bayha said the safest place for people to be is out on the land.
“Families are all by themselves. Basically you live your life out there. Freedom by yourself. You rarely get sick in the bush. There’s no interaction with other community members, and you’re doing daily exercise, daily outings, eating your traditional food that’s all healthy. It’s the healthiest place.”
About 10 families are preparing to go out and more children than usual will get a chance to experience life on the land with schools closed.
“Everybody is saying this is a really good chance to take all of their kids out onto the land and and practise our traditional ways. That way they can fall back on the survival skills and provide for the community and bring back fish and meat to the community.”
Trips to the bush will also take pressure off the hamlet through fewer trips to the store, reduced water delivery and less need for garbage services.
But whether people are outside or inside, Bayha said the pandemic has brought families together.
“A lot of people are pretty relaxed (and) understanding. The kids have been very good. They’ve been home with their families. Families are liking that they’re staying home with families.”