© Arctic Council Secretariat/Linnea Nordström

COVID-19 pandemic brings Arctic Council work to a standstill

29 October 2020

This article originally appeared in The Circle: A Green and Just Recovery. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, the world changed dramatically almost overnight. From where we can travel to how we work, life hasn’t been the same for most people around the globe. However, while many organisations have found ways to move forward using online tools, the Arctic Council’s work isn’t well-suited to those—so many of its operations are facing challenges. The Council is the leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, Indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants. As Timo Koivurova explains, the changes brought about by the pandemic are hurting the Council’s progress in terms of both science and diplomatic cooperation.

Like many people around the world, my life changed dramatically in March. I went from being a relatively migratory person, travelling around the Arctic for work, to being stuck at home. There’s no question that some of the changes brought about by the pandemic have been positive. Life has slowed down and allowed many of us to spend more time with our families. Virtual meetings ensure more people can participate, and less travel means a reduced carbon footprint. But the fact remains that to accomplish the goals of the Arctic Council and Arctic science, we need conferences and seminars where we can see our colleagues in other countries.

Trying to run an international intergovernmental forum such as the Arctic Council through distant meetings poses some obvious challenges. Not only does it mean people are chained to their desks, but as borders remain closed and remote communities continue (justifiably) to shut their doors to outsiders, many important projects are also facing delays. Although restrictions are slowly relaxing, what we can achieve in the near future will depend greatly on how long this global pandemic lasts.

Although many meetings were scheduled for fall 2020, it is now clear that most will be fully or semi-virtual or postponed entirely. This is not good news for the Council. When you are trying to foster international cooperation, interacting through a computer screen isn’t ideal. For one thing, virtual meetings are not conducive to building necessary trust. And much diplomacy takes place outside of formal meetings, such as in hallway discussions, coffee breaks, dinners and so on. You build trust when you get to know the whole person, not just the “e-personality” you meet through a computer screen. Without these personal connections, it is difficult to push projects forward as easily.

The other downside is the toll the pandemic has taken on Arctic research. Most of this research is international. Closed borders, lockdowns and quarantines have brought most of the field work that would have occurred in the spring or summer to a standstill. Some Arctic scientists have been able to continue their work using remote sensing and other equipment. But most other research in the Arctic has come to a screeching halt. It is even challenging to do research within one’s own country because of the need to observe social distancing and related restrictions.

As well, there are fears of contamination if southern scientists travel north, as the rates of infection have been higher in the southern parts of Arctic countries. In some cases, telephone or e-meetings are possible, but even then, there are often technical difficulties. Quality interviews need to be done in person to answer deeper questions. Most researchers cannot rely on remote surveys, satellites, drones or radar data. This situation is creating gaps in long-term data collection that will have an impact on research outcomes in the future. The big question for Arctic science is: how long will it take before a new normalcy is restored?

The Arctic Council recently released a study of the impacts of COVID-19 in the Arctic. The pandemic is poised to have significant effects on public health and societies in the region, so the Council recognized the need to consider how its work and mandate might be affected. It highlighted the value of activities like data sharing and collection, infectious disease monitoring and assessment, public awareness campaigns and more. Examining vulnerabilities and sources of resilience unique to Arctic communities, the study suggests strategies for “building back better,” such as creating local green jobs and sustainable infrastructure, directing funds into local economies, and relying on nature-based solutions adapted for climate change.

Obviously, it’s difficult to predict the future. We are sitting in limbo. One thing is for sure: we are all hoping that it will soon be safe to return to less restrictive measures. Unfortunately, we may have to wait for a vaccine. Only then will we be able to organize the international conferences and seminars we need and get back to doing critical field research across the Arctic.

TIMO KOIVUROVA is director of the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, Finland, and is a member of the Social, Economic and Cultural Expert Group within the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) of the Arctic Council.