Virginia Isaac, a U of T Social Work grad, is helping Nunavut residents quarantine during COVID-19

Virginia Isaac, who is graduating with a master's degree in social work, is currently supporting Nunavut residents who must quarantine at an isolation centre in Ottawa before returning to the territory (photo by Dale Duncan)

Virginia Isaac, a community social worker with the Government of Nunavut, is working out of Ottawa these days as she supports returning residents who must complete a 14-day quarantine in the territory’s isolation hubs. 

The isolation hubs, which also exist in Winnipeg, Edmonton and Yellowknife, serve as entry points to Nunavut and have played a key role in helping it avoid the first wave of COVID-19. 

Yet, while the strategy has been successful – the territory’s first case was identified Nov. 6 – Isaac says the experience can take its toll on residents.

“My job is to welcome new guests to the hubs, help them with their adjustment to quarantine, and do whatever I can to ease their stress during their stay,” Isaac says. “Isolation can be difficult, whether you’re travelling alone or managing the pressures of having your spouse and children living together in one room.”

Isaac, who is graduating this fall from the University of Toronto’s master of social work program in the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, does daily check-ins to monitor guests’ needs, which include meals that cater to their cultural and dietary requirements, safety, support and mental health services. Guests at the isolation hubs are reminded to adhere to public heath regulations, which include wearing a mask, practising social distancing, staying in their bubble and washing their hands frequently.

“When people are struggling with the demands of quarantine, I remind them that they’re making a positive contribution to preventing the spread of the virus,” Isaac says. “Remembering the broader value and purpose of their sacrifice often helps.”

As for her own safety, Isaac also takes a big-picture perspective.

“I’m very proud to be among those making a difference in people’s lives during the pandemic,” she says.

Isaac says her education and experience have served her well in her current role. As an advanced standing student, she pursued the faculty’s social justice and diversity field of study.

“A central emphasis in the program is recognizing clients’ unique life experiences and treating them as equal partners,” she says. “This is the way I approach my relationship with every new guest at the hub.”

Isaac was a social worker with the Government of Nunavut for more than six years before studying for her master’s degree at U of T. When she arrived in the territory in 2012, it was her first time in Canada’s Arctic. “It was a bit shocking at first in terms of the vast and untamed landscape,” she says. “But I took the time to get to know the culture and traditions of the Inuit, and their close relationship to the land.”

She says she soon saw similarities with her own childhood on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, where people in her rural village also have strong ties to their surroundings.

Isaac was a teenager when she immigrated to Toronto, which she now considers home. But she spent several years in British Columbia studying, working and vounteering with an intercultural and immigrant aid society – work that inspired her to becoming a social worker. There, she forged strong connections with local Indigenous communities. Before moving to British Columbia, Isaac worked for several years in health care in Toronto.

“I’ve always had a strong interest in learning about and working with Indigenous Peoples in Canada,” she says. “My own experience as a Black woman and that of my ancestors is very parallel in terms of marginalization, poverty, discrimination and stigma.”

For her master of social work practicum, Isaac worked at a community organization serving the Black community in Toronto, where many of the clients were coping with such issues.

Isaac is not sure what she’ll do once the isolation hubs are no longer needed. But she says the uncertainty doesn’t bother her.

“My ambitions are many, but wherever I am and whoever I’m working with, I approach things with an open mind and a passion for helping people.”

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