Indigenous and Inuit communities are expressing concern as the threat of COVID-19 comes nearer to their communities.
As a vulnerable population — about 50 per cent of on-reserve people have health concerns — Chief Linda Debassige says Indigenous peoples are at a much higher risk than the general public.
“In our communities we are already challenged with lack of human resources, lack of supplies, lack of support from both the provincial and federal governments, lack of nursing, lack of doctors and lack of availability of proper health care,” says Debassige.
Debassige says in her community, the M’Chigeeng First Nation in Ontario, they are treating the coronavirus as an enemy and “as such are preparing for war, so to speak.”
“Once the virus is confirmed locally, it will already be too late,” says Debassige. In addition to school closures, all offices and community services were closed prior to the declaration of a state of emergency in Ontario.
According to Debassige, the local health authority on Manitoulin Island has said they do not have the capacity to address COVID-19 cases.
“Our First Nation is taking a sovereign stance,” says Debasige. “We have made decisions even in advance of both the federal and provincial governments. The trends we are seeing now and the recommendations that have recently been released by the governments are things we have already implemented.”
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) are also calling for Inuit to be treated as a high risk group by federal and provincial governments.
“Inuit have elevated rates for certain infections, including tuberculosis,” says ITK, adding that during the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, Indigenous peoples in isolated communities were considered high risk due to their reduced access to health care.
ITK says they expect the federal government to work with Inuit regions to mobilize resources to ensure staff and supplies are in place in case they are needed.
“They need to be prepared to assist Inuit regions if southern centres are unable to provide health care or supplies to Inuit communities,” the group says.
The City of Iqaluit has asked that anyone planning to visit the north for non-essential reasons delay their travel. Iqaluit is a hub for communities across Nunavut, which as of Tuesday afternoon had not yet reported any cases of COVID-19.
Impacts beyond immediate health problems ‘catastrophic’
The steps taken by M’Chigeeng First Nation are to protect their elders, says Debassige.
“Our elders are our knowledge keepers, our language keepers, our ceremonial keepers, our traditional knowledge keepers, our guides. The potential devastation of this virus can only be deemed catastrophic to the loss of our ways of life, our identity, or language.”
Debassige says the knowledge of the elders is irreplaceable.
“This is the greatest concern we have now. Our elders are our foundation of our communities and our elders must be protected now.”
The federal government has announced $100 million for ongoing support for preparedness in First Nations and Inuit communities, and Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced funding for 50 doctors to be sent to remote Indigenous communities in the province, though it was not immediately clear how soon communities could see assistance.