SPEECH: Remarks at the 14th Conference of the Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region

[As Delivered]

            Good morning to you or good afternoon to you, wherever you may be. Thank you for all those who are speaking, all those who are participating in these very important meetings. I think we recognize that the challenges of putting on a conference such as this are significant, and we appreciate those who have put together all aspects of this 14th Conference of the Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region. So thank you to you all.

            I also want to thank those who are hosting the meeting, our current leadership: Chairman Eirik Siversten, our Vice Chairman Larry Bagnell – I appreciate all that both of you have done during your terms, I valued your leadership and thank you for your time and for your effort.

            I also want to recognize my colleagues from the United States who have joined me as part of the United States’ delegation. It was just back in 2015 that I joined with a fellow Senator, Senator Angus King of Maine from the state of Maine. We formed the Arctic Senate Caucus to raise awareness about Arctic issues to help build out policy initiatives. Then in 2019 in Ottawa we were able to bring a delegation to that meeting of the Standing Committee on the Arctic Parliamentarians. I think it is evidence of the growing interest in our Congress of those matters that are related to the Arctic that we are seeing so many colleagues engage and participate in, so I think that is significant.

            As was mentioned, I have been asked to provide remarks on the “economic and societal consequences of COVID-19.” There is no question, there is no doubt that we have all been impacted by this pandemic professionally, as members of government, and certainly personally, as family members, as friends, and as community members. We can all cite the statistics and the figures of the economic and the social consequences in our respective states, in our provinces, in our territories, and in our countries. We have seen higher unemployment rates. We have seen loss of business revenue. We have seen stores and restaurants that have closed down, careers have been altered, school years lost. I was listening to Ms. Mullerson and we recognize the impact on our young people, what that means to interruption with their education – just social lives that have literally been cut off, but we also recognize the impact to our elders that have been shut in, loss to our families when they lose a family member and are not able to properly mourn through funerals or services. And as a consequence of this impact and the emotional and very personal impact that comes, we see some of the societal impacts that leave devastating impact far beyond the pandemic itself. And we see this in rising levels of domestic violence, of suicide, of mental health and behavioral health. So, as we recognize these stages of the pandemic, with first the direct health impact, and then second the economic impact that comes when our communities are forced to shut in, but then third, and again a ripple effect from this that I think we will see going forward, and that is the impact on the mental and the behavioral health of so many.

            I think we also recognize that pandemic – while it has impacted everyone – it has not impacted all in the same way. And certainly when you speak about the Arctic we know that those differences are many. And yet when you think about the onset of this pandemic, governments have made nearly identical requests of their people – they’ve been told to stay home, work from home, go to school from home, socially distance, limit the number of gatherings, keep gatherings to one household, keep your bubbles small, convene outdoors if necessary, wash your hands – we’ve all heard the same advice, the same guidance, the same protocols.

            Governments have made these requests, they’ve made rules, laws, and regulations, under the assumption that people had the ability – and that is to basically say the means – to function in this amended capacity. And the general assumption has been that governments can make these requests because most people have the ability to follow suit. And, in many places, that works, that makes sense. In a large community in Alaska like an Anchorage, you have the ability to certainly wash your hands, to be able to be connected to school or to business through the internet. But in so many parts of my state, as ion so many parts of the Arctic, the means are not the same.

            We all have come to understand what “hunkering down,” as we called it in Alaska, what it meant. It was an inconvenience yes, but tele-work, tele-school, tele-health, were possible for most, and it was also the other necessities of life. The ability to go to the grocery store, the pharmacy, the park that was down the street. In most homes there was adequate living space, reliable access to clean water. It wasn’t convenient as we recognize, but it was workable.

            And I don’t mean to minimize the impact of COVID-19 in places like this. But I think we also recognize that the impact that we have seen has been a disparate impact, impacting differently in different areas. In my state of Alaska when the pandemic hit, our state’s economy was already struggling.

            We had seen the oil and gas industry, which we rely on quite heavily, it had gone into a slump because of price issues. But then when the pandemic hit that impacted supply, our fishing season had already been a historically bad season and so we were struggling there. We were certainly looking forward to a robust tourism season, but as we all know, but when COVID came, everything stopped, and that was certainly true in the tourist sector. Not only did air travel become greatly contracted, but the cruise ship season which is an integral part to our tourist sector was literally close overnight, completely cancelled. We had anticipated 1.3 million visitors to the state of Alaska to come in by cruise ship in 2020, and instead what we say was 48. Not 48,000, but 48 people. So it was a reality, and remains a reality that Alaska’s economy was struggling and hurting significant. We saw that about a 33 percent revenue loss from the year prior, and that remains again a great part of the challenge that we face in my part of the country.

            But to go back to the societal impacts, the economic impacts, the assumptions that our government made – to stay home; to connect to the internet for work, and for school, and for medicine; to wash your hands off, to socially distance – these were complicated in many parts of my state.

            So one specific example and this is one that we share a lot – we discuss very often the need for broadband capacity, the need to be connected, and that has never been made more apparent than in this time of COVID. For years we have all called upon our respective governments to address the digital infrastructure, or the lack thereof, in the Arctic. And COVID has certainly shined a spotlight on this. COVID-19 forced everyone to go virtual. And for many  this was an easy transition. They were able to commute from their kitchens or their living rooms, they were able to telework, telehealth, tele-everything. And yet for so many, this was not a possibility.

            Over 30 percent of Alaska lacks access to reliable and redundant broadband. Nearly 20 percent of Alaskans have no access at all. That’s about 120,000 people in my state, and again these are in the most remote areas, these are in the further North portions of the state. These are in areas where most of the residents are Indigenous peoples. And it’s not just a situation of not having access – even those with access pay greater rates for lesser service. As we have seen families make the decision as to whether or not conduct their business over the internet while their children are going to school, we have seen internet bills soar. In Utqiagvik, the northernmost community in Alaska, I’ve received comments from families who have said that their monthly bill for internet service alone is $800 dollars. This is not an affordable option. And some people even get cut off or reduced service when they reach a set limit, so it’s not even possible to buy more connectivity.

            So the reality is that when we look at the impacts of COVID, there are those who have and there are those who have not. And those who “have” reliable and redundant internet probably don’t think about how much it costs or when access will get cut off because it is offered at affordable prices and reliable access. But those who “have not” have to weigh the pros and cons of logging on, whether it’s for a medical appointment or for their children’s school lessons.  And they’re making a tradeoff. They are having to ask, “How important is this doctor appointment?” “How important is this day of school?” And these are not questions that any citizens of any country should ever have to ask themselves.

            Another example of the disparity – we have asked everyone to socially distance.  Stay six feet apart. Wash your hands. Use extra sanitation. Convene virtually or outside. But in so many of our communities in the Arctic, we find multiple families living in small houses with eight, ten, twelve plus people in two or three room homes, where social distancing is absolutely not possible. And it’s certainly not possible to meet outside during the winter where Arctic people are hardy, but it’s pretty tough in many parts of the Arctic as we know.  

            And as for cleanliness and sanitation, I believe we all take for granted how easy it is to wash our hands, stay clean, practice additional hygiene. But that’s because we have access to it.  Over 3,300 rural Alaska homes lack running water or reliable sanitation. So this is a situation when you’re told to wash your hands, that basic task is quite a challenge. Sometimes it is not just an issue of lack of water, it’s also the access to hand soap, to sanitizer, where you’ll be paying five to ten times the normal price for such a product. Often times you have a shortage of the materials or the supplies that come to the village because air travel has been cut off as we have attempted to ensure that the virus doesn’t come into these communities. As in so many parts of the Arctic, we see that the communities are not accessible to one another by road, they’re limited to plane access or to water access during the summer months, but it leads to a level of isolation that one would think that would protect from the virus, but in order to have these protections, it has resulted in truly being cut off from the outside world. We saw this play out in real time when a small Native village in November had a fire in their water treatment facility. It destroyed the water treatment plant, so there was no water, no safe drinking water for the village of some 400 people. And they couldn’t accept help from surrounding villages because of the mandatory lockdown orders within the villages, and so it was not possible to bring snow machine, to provide additional water. These types of incidents unfortunately are part of a reality that we see often times in the Far North.

            When we think about the disparity, we put in place guidelines and restrictions that have made basic assumptions that people have both the ways and the means to do so. And yet sometime I think we fail to recognize what it actually costs – quite literally down to the dollar or to the kroner – the cost to telework, to tele-learn, to socially distance, to even wash our hands.  We simply assume people can do so because we need them to.

            So I think our task going forward is going to be to connect these assumptions with reality.  And by this I mean it is my hope that the real consequences of the pandemic is not all that we have lost – as much as that has been – but rather what we can collectively gain going forward. And I think we are seeing this, we are certainly seeing this in the United States in our response and in our investments when it comes to addressing so many of these disparities. And we have seen this in various COVID relief programs from last year as well as going into this next year.  Considerable investments to be made, whether it’s investments in infrastructure such as broadband, water, wastewater, housing – these will all be priorities going forward.

            The pandemic has forced us to assume that everyone had broadband because we needed them to have broadband. And the impacts on those who did not have this was devastating. And the consequence should be that we are able to get them reliable, redundant broadband. 

            The pandemic has forced us to assume people had ample space in their homes and communities to be able to socially distance. And the impacts on those who didn’t were disproportionate relative to the impacts on those who did. And the consequence should be that we find ways to provide access to affordable, sustainable, and reliable housing and communities everywhere.

            The pandemic has forced us to assume that people could do something as simple as wash their hands for thirty seconds with clean, warm water. And yet the pandemic has proven that even that is not so simple, and certainly not cheap. The consequence should be that we find ways to make it simpler and cheaper.

            COVID-19 has provided us as Parliamentarians with a literal punch list of items that we can use to guide our collective efforts across the Arctic. Our actions as Parliamentarians during and in the wake of the pandemic should aim to address the disparities that the pandemic has laid to bare. And by that I mean we can vigorously and collectively address these issues or wait for the next catastrophe to once again highlight what we already know.

            I think we have seen tremendous resolve throughout this. I know certainly in my state, as we have attempted to distribute the vaccine to Alaskans that we are quite proud of the fact that we are first in the nation in terms of number of vaccines that have been distributed per capita. And it has been done with a level of innovation, resilience – utilizing every means possible – from snowmachines to hauling medical professionals around on a sled, physician’s assistants literality going down to fishing boats to put shots in arms. All those who have been working to address the impacts have been significant, but the efforts to vaccinate have been considerable and greatly appreciated.

            So, I will end my remarks by just acknowledging that we as Parliamentarians have work to do. I think our imperative must be to be working together to be collaborative and to acknowledge that what we have learned from the legacy of COVID-19 will inspire us and motivate us to advance real, meaningful progress when it comes to broadband, housing, healthcare, behavioral health and more. And that is what I hope will ultimately be the economic and societal consequences of COVID-19. I look forward to the conversation with other members on the panel, but thank you for this opportunity.