The NWT government on Monday released a report examining the social impacts of its Covid-19 restrictions, but said it could not reach any definitive conclusions.
Gathering bans, lockdowns and other public health measures across Canada have led to a reported increase in substance use, negative impacts on mental health, and an uptick in intimate-partner violence.
The NWT’s report, completed by a Department of Health and Social Services working group, tracks social indicators related to the likes of mental health, addictions and child maltreatment over time.
However, the report’s authors say they can’t be certain whether changes observed are due to the pandemic – partly because of the territory’s small population and partly because of territorial datasets’ other limitations.
“Overall, the multiple threats to validity may mean that an easily measured social indicator may not truly measure what we believe it is measuring,” the report states.
“These threats to validity may be great enough to make the data worthless. Worse, the indicators, if not valid and interpreted incorrectly, could be dangerous.”
For example, the report found a decrease in the number of individual children who were the subject of reports of suspected maltreatment and neglect in April and September 2020, compared to the same period in 2019.
It notes, however, that this may not mean there were fewer cases. The change could instead be a result of decreased school attendance or less contact with friends and family, leading to less reporting.
Additionally, the report documents fewer admissions to family violence shelters in 2020 compared to the previous two years.
Again, however, the authors caution this could be because women were unsure whether shelters were open, or because pandemic restrictions made it more difficult for them to leave their homes.
“When individuals are under constant surveillance from their abuser, they are less able to reach out for help and to get safety if need be,” the report states. “The orders also keep people isolated from friends and family, meaning that there are fewer opportunities for informal support.”
Between April and July, Yellowknife’s Alison McAteer House shelter did report an increase in applications for emergency protection orders – legal orders that give victims of family violence up to 90 days’ protection.
The report says these orders may have been a safety net for those unable to access shelter services during the pandemic.
Alcohol sales increased substantially
According to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, 23 percent of Canadians reported drinking more alcohol during the pandemic.
In the NWT, spending on alcohol increased substantially between May and October. The largest monthly increase was reported in July, at 22.5 percent, with the smallest increase in August, at 8.7 percent.
The authors of the NWT report initially attributed the increase to stockpiling over fears liquor stores would close.
However, as the pandemic wore on, they found an “ongoing, sustained increase” in alcohol sales.
In April, the territorial government introduced sales restrictions at NWT liquor stores. A daily spending cap of $200 has since been maintained, along with a limit of six mickeys – or 375-ml bottles of liquor – per customer.
In May, the territory amended regulations to allow restaurants and bars to deliver alcohol to private residences – with some limitations – to “encourage responsible consumption” during the pandemic.
Electronic medical records indicated an increase in alcohol-related medical visits across the territory, particularly in June 2020, when the number of visits was double the figure for the same month in 2019.
In Yellowknife, 9-1-1 calls related to alcohol increased between April and October. The report said that could be due in part to limits on numbers of people the city’s Street Outreach van can transport at once, along with cleaning protocols between riders.
The report found NWT residents were accessing mental health supports more through the health system and anonymous helplines as opposed to counselling. Authors attributed this to people not knowing counselling services were still available, not being comfortable accessing them remotely, or not having have the resources to do so.
Despite its immense stated reservations about the data, the report concludes the act of analyzing what was available remained “extremely valuable” in informing the NWT’s plan to mitigate the social impacts of Covid-19.
The department said long-term monitoring of the data would continue.