Lavvuu in Kautokeino, Norway

Coronavirus in the Arctic: We have no one to lose

25 March 2020
Interview with Christina Henriksen, the President of the Saami Council

Christina Hendriksen is the President of the Saami Council. We asked her about how national measures taken to contain the coronavirus in the Arctic impact Sámi people across Sápmi. We discussed her major concerns and how similar infectious outbreaks have impacted Sámi communities in the past – while she was juggling work tasks and home schooling.


How are Sámi people affected by the national measures taken to contain the coronavirus?

The Sámi people are used to cross the borders established by states without considering them borders, as many of us have family and relations widespread throughout Sápmi. So, with the borders closing, many have had to choose where they would prefer to stay if this lasts throughout spring and early summer. Many are prevented from visiting family and this is, of course, particularly hard if someone in the family is not feeling well.

Also, many Sámi cross the borders for work or studies – as do we at the Saami Council. We monitored the situation and decided rather early that travels would be considered case by case, while also awaiting notice from our cooperation partners. We have cancelled all trips and meetings until the end of April, while monitoring the situation and awaiting further advice from the health authorities.

However, the different national states in which we live have different policies regarding the pandemic, so the Saami Council is basically advising everyone to stay calm, stay at home, or in a place they feel safe for a longer period, and to follow official advice.

Yet, not all Sámi have office jobs, and we have contacted the national authorities regarding cross-border reindeer husbandry, to make sure the reindeer herders can travel across the border and continue doing their job and providing food.

"My main concern is that we are so few people, and we have no one to lose."Christina Henriksen

What are some of your major concerns related to an outbreak in an Indigenous Arctic community?

My main concern is that we are so few people, and we have no one to lose – as would probably be the answer in many other communities. However, we also have long distances to healthcare facilities. If you were to get sick in Guovdageaidnu (Kautokeino), you would have to drive for at least five hours in either direction to get to a hospital, as ambulance planes cannot land there. Thus, we are depending on isolating and following advices.

But I am also optimistic that Sámi people will do what it takes to stop this virus from spreading. The remoteness of many Sámi communities combined with harsh working conditions in fisheries and reindeer husbandry, make us dependent of staying healthy, and staying away from unsafe situations wherever possible. Also, we are mostly self-sufficient when it comes to food – and that makes it quite easy for us to isolate.

How have Sámi communities been affected by earlier pandemics?

The most recent one would be "The Spanish Flu" around 1918. It coincided with terrible pastures for the reindeer, and is referred to as the "hunger years" among some reindeer herding communities. The Sámi population is said to have been hard struck by that pandemic, lacking immunity probably due to little contact with the majority society and/or poverty.

How could cooperation across the Arctic support Indigenous peoples to prepare for future outbreaks?

Access to health care, institutions with health care personnel with knowledge of Indigenous peoples’ cultures and languages, is key for maintaining healthy and sustainable Arctic communities. Arctic cooperation could include health care education and strengthening of educational institutions, as well as provide Arctic communities with safe and satisfying health care institutions, ensuring that all infrastructure benefits local communities and inhabitants – remote or not.