How will COVID-19 affect the hub of the north?

La Ronge is often referred to as ‘the hub’ of northern Saskatchewan. It is a fairly hot tourist spot in the summer with fishing, camping, hunting and more. But with the current pandemic and the north on lockdown, how will La Ronge fair during spring and possibly summer if the pandemic is still ongoing during those months?

“The circumstances surrounding Covid-19 are consistently changing.” Said Jordan McPhail, La Ronge Town Alderperson. “Part of the factors we have to take into consideration is it’s kind of like technology where you install the newest and the greatest and by the time you have everything running up and normally, it’s time for something new. So, that’s how we’ve seen a lot of the last… week-to-week things happening.”

Many people continue to congregate with close friends and family members. To some, social distancing is an entirely new concept, especially those who come from very community-oriented families. And with warm weather now beginning, health officials warn of a second wave and to not yet get complacent about the virus.

 The town of La Ronge council had originally voted to keep the town open since, there are currently no known cases and council members worry about the town’s economy. However, McPhail states that there are local businesses that can still be accessed.

“[We’re] looking at ways to support our businesses due to a downturn in the economic … things in our community.” McPhail says of the upcoming budget meeting. “A lot of fishing camps, and flying in/flying out camps, that uh, we have a lot of people coming in from other parts of Canada as well as international travel and y’know, in the states. So, as we see the changing dynamic on what the tourist market will be in the summer, we have a lot of great businesses, a lot of industries here that are not a hundred percent reliant on tourism, but tourism does feed into a lot of what we have here. What I’ll be doing in the coming days, weeks, and months is reaching out to the local businesses and the local residents to see how the economic factors have played a role in their life and what’s the easiest way the municipality can do that… I have to give a bit of a shoutout to the government of Saskatchewan and the government of Canada for reacting quickly and getting money into the pockets of people that were working and are now out of work.”

Premier Scott Moe has implemented a plan to slowly open the province back up, including beaches and campgrounds, there is still no word on whether the beach in La Ronge will be open to the public. 

Northern leaders were concerned and said they weren’t consulted with this plan.

There has been a marked increase of COVID-19 cases in the north, making it a hot spot for the pandemic in Saskatchewan.

Shortly after the government’s announcement, Saskatchewan RCMP said that a civilian employee in La Loche, a village in northwest Saskatchewan, tested positive for COVID-19.

The majority of active cases are in the Far North region as it appears on Saskatchewan health authority maps.

The province, though, says outside spread has been contained and the situation is now one of community spread within La Loche.

Northern Saskatchewan faces unique challenges dealing with the pandemic. Long distances between population centers make supplies hard to deliver, and crowded housing can facilitate the spread of disease.

That’s why First Nations, Métis and municipal leaders established the Northwest Communities Incident Command Center COVID response team, which is a community-led initiative to combat the pandemic locally.

They hold daily information and response meetings, share knowledge and build partnerships between communities and are assisted by the 4th Canadian Ranger group and resident military reservists.

“Reopen Saskatchewan is not ready. We don’t have a strategy to go back safely to our normal operations. In our view, if you can’t test us and you can’t vaccinate us, let’s stay isolated,” Rick Laliberte, Incident Commander with the Northwest Communities Incident Command Center COVID response team in Beauval told National Observer.

Laliberte said that there was no consultation with the north of the province before the reopen Saskatchewan plan was unveiled on Thursday.

He said there’s a disconnect between what the province is telling Saskatchewan as a whole and what northern leaders are telling their constituents.

“We were experiencing an outbreak as they were planning to reopen the provincial economy and it was totally counter to what we had been asking for. We wanted travel restrictions,” Laliberte said.

“We only have one ventilator in our whole region. It’s a vulnerable health system for us. You have to go to North Battleford or Saskatoon for anything beyond that.

“We’re dealing now with contaminated garbage. The contaminated garbage right now from the COVID-19 patients. Now we have to haul garbage all the way to Meadow Lake. In Patuanak, there’s a whole truck load of garbage. It’s just sitting in the back of a truck and the ravens are taking it away.”

He said people need to be cognizant of things like the proper disposal of disinfectant wipes, but that knowledge isn’t getting to residents fast enough because of the lack of provincial participation to fight the pandemic.

“If you put disinfectant wipes in your sewer system, your lift stations will back up and if you have a sewer backup in the middle of a pandemic you’ve got double jeopardy… We’re unifying our water and sewer operators in our region in case the water and sewer system goes down because of an operator.”

In La Ronge, summer students will still have opportunities for employment. The town of La Ronge has listings for summer student positions, as will the rest of the province.

“Typically, we always do a summer student role.” McPhail says. “Although the grass and whatnot will not be played on as much this year, it still does grow and we want to make sure our community looks great while we’re social distancing and maybe going for a walk, or y’know, within a measurable time, go out in nature. We’re certainly not going to see the community bonfires and the gatherings at the beaches, hopefully, if everyone’s keeping up with what they can do to keep the spread down. The summer students have typically been hired to keep our parks and recreations looking great.”

Some people are also worried about the homeless population and what their fate will be should anyone begin displaying symptoms and get a positive test for Covid-19. How can a person self isolate if they have no home to isolate themselves in?

“Housing the homeless in La Ronge has been a chronic issue, it’s not a Covid-19 issue.” McPhail said. “This is something we’ve been looking at and have been trying to find ways to provide advocacy and personally, what I can do with my own means to help out the homeless population… and going into the discussion of, “what do we do with the homeless population, and how do we address those issues?” 

La Loche has looked at a partnership with the Mètis Local and as well as looking at the Northern Lights School Division and putting people that are in the over-crowded or a homeless situation, that they are able to move themselves into that facility where they are able to isolate and socially distance themselves and self-isolate while they’re either presumed or confirmed positive. And that’s what some of the health officials did explain with me just earlier today, was that they’re looking onto regional leadership and that we should take the lead on coordinating efforts on self-isolation for the vulnerable sector.”

There are varying thoughts onto how long Covid-19 will be in circulation. Reports of the virus staying into the summer, into the fall, and even some say into the Winter. 

There have also been headlines about a vaccine as the only way to get rid of the virus and a vaccine could take at least 18 months, which is much faster than other vaccines being created.

And, there is the warning of a second wave after cases begin to lower. 

No one is able to say for sure how long the country will have to practice social distancing, and many are worrying about the economy, while others worry about their mental and physical health. 

One thing all health officials can agree on, though, is that we should continue to wash our hands regularly, keep our distance socially, and only travel if necessary. 

–With files from Michael Bramadat-Willcock, Local Journalism initiative reporter, National Observer and from Peter Lozinski, The Northern Advocate