For the Arctic, from home: Arctic cooperation amidst the Coronavirus pandemic

26 March 2020
Editorial by Einar Gunnarsson, Chair of the Senior Arctic Officials

Overnight, the coronavirus pandemic has brought extraordinary changes to our daily lives, as unprecedented and drastic as climate change, but faster. For the Arctic Council, our primary concern at this moment is the health and safety of Arctic inhabitants and our delegates that engage in the challenges of assisting their fellow citizens across the world. In uncertain times such as these, it is – perhaps more than ever – important for international cooperation to continue.

While we all prioritize the health and safety of our near and dear by staying at home and respecting social distance when venturing outside, the Council remains active and committed to cooperation across the Arctic. In the spirit of continuing Arctic collaboration in a responsible manner, the Arctic Science Summit Week 2020, projected to be held back-to-back with the Arctic Council’s Senior Arctic Officials’ (SAO) meeting, has been moved online from 27 March to 2 April, and I encourage Arctic Council family members to participate in their ambitious program.

If before the possibility of remote work and online meetings was merely a convenient option, these past few weeks have opened our eyes as never before to the importance of bandwidth and good and affordable connectivity, and alas: the digital connectivity gap for inhabitants of the Arctic. Pricing, availability, reliability and accessibility remain some of the biggest challenges regarding connectivity in remote Arctic communities. The current situation underscores the importance of pursuing the work on connectivity that has been ongoing under the auspices of the Arctic Council these past five years.

As important as it is to continue our work, we must all put safety first. We are all conscious of the fact that Arctic communities are particularly vulnerable should they experience an outbreak. Many sparsely populated areas in the High North suffer from lack of infrastructure, including easy access to healthcare, which of course increases health risks in a pandemic. The Arctic Council recognizes this situation and, through its Working Groups, works to improve living conditions of all Arctic inhabitants.

People and communities of the Arctic is one of four priority fields that the Chairmanship program focuses on, because the inhabitants are the heart and soul of the region. The initiatives that aim to promote the health and wellbeing of the roughly four million people living in the region will remain central to the Arctic Council’s work. The One Arctic – One Health project by the Council’s Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) is one such initiative. It aims to exchange information and innovations that can support public health systems and health service delivery, with particular emphasis on projects that reduce death and disability from high-burden infections, among other issues. Projects such as these rely on international cooperation and the integration of traditional and local knowledge to enhance community-based approaches, designed to respond to health issues. The collaboration is grounded in longstanding traditions and cultures of the Arctic region, as well as in more recent Arctic diplomacy. During times like these we fully appreciate the importance of circumpolar experts and local inhabitants working together to improve conditions in small Arctic communities.

The Chairmanship team will continue to monitor developments closely. We have already rescheduled the SAO meetings to early summer and fall. While we hope that the pandemic will abate soon, we must remain flexible in this unprecedented situation. In the meantime, we continue our work online and find innovative ways to collaborate and communicate.

I wish you good health and wellness.