Taylor P. van Doren, Ryan A. Brown & Ron Heintz

Pandemics are recurring events through human history, so it is valuable to analyze and compare determinants, impacts, and consequences of different pandemics. Anthropological perspectives of pandemics recognize that modern population health is the product of biocultural evolution that is driven by human relationships with infectious pathogens that play out differently in locales with different cultural, environmental, and biological ecologies. Health and pandemic experiences in the Arctic are expected to be distinct from those of other regions of the world and should be closely investigated to better understand the dynamics and consequences of pandemics therein. In this paper, we focus on Alaska and its unique experiences with the 1918 influenza pandemic and the COVID-19 pandemic. Through review of these two pandemics, we show that there are similarities across time, such as how coastal communities were hit hardest and interior communities were more likely to escape, and that Alaska Native communities’ ability to maintain agency over their community-centered responses resulted in better protection against novel outbreaks. Additionally, we characterize the ambient social conditions during each pandemic to explore critical relationships between biology, culture, behavior, and health. Finally, in an application of biocultural theory to pandemics, we review and engage with the emerging literature on the impacts of delayed healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic and theorize about potential population health consequences of delayed care during COVID-19 in Alaska. Current data for Southeast Alaska show that the majority of people in the region experienced delays in healthcare in 2020-21, but more research is required to identify determinants of this phenomenon. Finally, we discuss how a biocultural perspective can help us understand the dynamics of pandemics and can help tailor pandemic preparedness plans that are appropriate for local social and cultural ecologies.

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