As a new public health crisis unfolds across Canada, Indigenous communities—particularly those in remote, isolated regions—are facing some of the highest risks, Indigenous leaders say.
The World Health Organization officially dubbed the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) a pandemic, with more than 114 affected countries, Canada included. The country has reported over 100 confirmed cases and one death, and the numbers are expected to climb. To mitigate virus spread, public health authorities have repeatedly told people to wash their hands frequently, drink plenty of fluids, and maintain social distancing, while people who have COVID-19 symptoms are expected to self-isolate.
Indigenous leaders say that communities currently struggling with water advisories—or no running water at all—and inadequate housing can’t take the preventative measures necessary to stop COVID-19 spread. Plus, many remote communities don’t have a hospital or permanent healthcare staff nearby, which makes it difficult to report symptoms as soon as they arise.
Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) has 18 water advisories, including the 25-year-long advisory in Neskantaga First Nation, said NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler.
“We can’t tell people to wash their hands if they don’t have clean drinking water,” Fiddler said. “We can’t tell them to go see a health professional or nurse when we don’t have that in our nursing stations. We have very limited capacity with equipment.”
Fiddler said his top priority is to acquire personal protective equipment and medical supplies—especially hand sanitizers and disinfectants.
Inadequate housing is also making the prospect of self-isolation difficult, said Daniel Morriseau, a spokesperson with Grand Council Treaty #3.
“Sometimes, there are more people in your house than in your workplace,” he said, adding there may be three or four families in a single residence.
The lack of infrastructure means hand-washing and self-isolation are often not an option for some communities, Morriseau added.
The problem is worsened by the fact that Indigenous reserves are typically made up of the very demographics most at-risk of severe COVID-19 infection: the elderly, the young, and people with diabetes, Morriseau said.
Courtney Skye, a research fellow with the Yellowhead Institute said Indigenous communities “are very cognizant of the fact that the most vulnerable people are also the people with a significant amount of cultural knowledge”—namely, elders.
“In my own community, language keepers are over 60 years old, Skye said. “If we lose them in this pandemic, it’s going to be devastating to our culture and language.”
Plus, a lot of Indigenous kids in the foster care system are placed with extended family, including grandparents and great-grandparents, she said, adding that if elders who take care of youth get sick, no one knows what will happen to the kids.
First Nations leaders know what to do to protect their communities Skye said, but Ottawa needs to prioritize Indigenous communities when delivering the resources critical for combatting COVID-19.
Canada Public Health is hoping to procure specialized isolation tents that will allow for COVID-19 screening and testing in communities lacking healthcare access and infrastructure, CBC News reported.
Valerie Gideon with Canada Public Health said Ottawa is also open to sending lightweight structures that will house people who need to self-isolate and healthcare workers who might need to live in remote Indigenous communities for extended periods of time.
Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller sits on the COVID-19 cabinet committee, introduced by Trudeau to streamline pandemic response between governments and ministries.
Grand Chief Fiddler told VICE he is meeting with Miller on Friday to discuss Indigenous community concerns.
Fiddler said he and his Ottawa- and Toronto-based staff are also halting travel to northern communities for the foreseeable future, because they don’t want to risk virus spread.
“As long as we don’t address basic infrastructure issues, whether it’s housing or water, our communities will continue to remain in a very vulnerable state,” Fiddler said.
For now, Indigenous leaders are dusting off influenza action plans designed for remote communities, even though most of them are several years old.
“Few communities have the capacity—literal physical staff—to implement these plans, so we’re always playing catch up,” Morriseau said. “The struggle right now is there’s discussion of updating these plans, but the reality is that the pandemic is already here.”
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