By Alejandro de la Garza
With a deadly coronavirus epidemic creeping northward and the nearest hospital 230 miles away, Galen Gilbert, First Chief of Arctic Village, Alaska, knew his 200-person town could not afford to take any chances. A single case of COVID-19 could lead to the virus quickly spreading around the tight-knit community, but anybody who needed hospitalization would likely face an overstretched medevac system. As national infection rates rose, the 32-year-old leader and his village made an agonizing decision: rather than risk a potentially devastating outbreak, Arctic Village cut itself off almost entirely from the outside world.
“It’s a sacrifice we have to do for our people, because it’s such a small community,” Gilbert says. “You gotta do what you gotta do to survive.”
In recent weeks, dozens of villages like Gilbert’s, mainly populated by indigenous Alaskans or Gwich’in and overseen by tribal authorities, have restricted or completely halted travel in order to keep COVID-19 at bay, in addition to instituting social distancing rules within their borders. Barring travel is an extreme measure for such isolated communities, but leaders say it’s better than risking outbreaks in settlements where a lack of local medical capacity means an infection could easily become a death sentence. “They really don’t have any way other than that to protect themselves,” says Victor Joseph, chief and chairman of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, an Alaska Native non-profit corporation that provides social and health services to 37 federally-recognized tribes spread across an area a bit smaller than the state of Texas.