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Indigenous people need more support to weather 2nd wave of COVID-19: experts

New medical mask company will prioritize Indigenous orders
After feeling the effects of a PPE shortage, a Saskatchewan First Nation has started a medical mask-making company.

While Canada continues with its reopening process, experts are concerned that the needs of Indigenous communities are being neglected when it comes to combating the coronavirus pandemic.

A Change.org petition launched in April urgently called for more resources to be provided to Indigenous communities across the country to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The petition states that “many Indigenous communities experience poverty, overcrowding, food and water insecurity, and lack adequate access to healthcare and there is a higher rate of chronic disease,” which all increases the risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes.

It has received close to 55,000 signatures so far.

Read more: 60% of Indigenous people say mental health is worse due to COVID-19, survey says

Dr. Anna Banerji, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto Dalla Lana School of Public Health and co-creator of the petition, says that while some of the government response to the petition’s calls has been positive, more funding for these communities is needed to tackle issues associated with COVID-19, including mental health.

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“We still have Indigenous communities at risk and they’ve taken it upon themselves to try to stop the spread to the community… but (many) don’t have access to health care,” said Banerji, who is also the co-founder of the Indigenous Health Conference.

“It’s a pressure cooker.”

Pandemic puts Indigenous Peoples at greater risk

Historically, pandemics have harmed Indigenous Peoples in Canada disproportionately, and health disparities remain. In order for these communities to effectively combat COVID-19, the government needs to focus on working with Indigenous leaders to tackle health inequities rooted in colonialism, instead of band-aid temporary funding, Banerji said.

For instance, lack of access to health care, and higher levels of morbidity overall, create an environment where it’s very difficult to stay healthy and where COVID-19 may be more challenging to battle if it’s spread on a reserve, she said.

As fears of a second wave of the virus in the fall emerge, Indigenous communities need more support than ever.

Coronavirus: Indigenous communities especially at risk to COVID-19, warns WHO
Coronavirus: Indigenous communities especially at risk to COVID-19, warns WHO

Close to a quarter of Indigenous people living in Canada are in overcrowded housing, according to data from the 2016 census. This creates barriers to physical distancing or allowing a family member to isolate if they are sick, said Banerji.

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There are also boil water advisories in 61 Indigenous communities across Canada as of February this year, she said.

“When you have mercury toxicity in a community that hasn’t been cleaned for 50 years… how can we move forward when these communities don’t have the basic necessities for a healthy life that other communities have?” she said.

“It really shows the disparities in policy that affect Indigenous lives.”

Indigenous health needs a long-term government commitment

Indigenous Services Canada told Global News the government recognizes “First Nation, Inuit and Métis are among the most vulnerable and face unique challenges in addressing COVID-19.”

To date, the government has made around $1.7 billion in “distinctions-based funding” available to Indigenous and northern communities to support them in managing the COVID-19 crisis, said Adrienne Vaupshas, communications assistant at the Office of the Minister of Indigenous Services.

The funding has been directed towards multiple areas, including the On-Reserve Income Assistance Program, support for Indigenous businesses and the “ongoing public health response.”

Read more: Indigenous people especially ‘vulnerable’ to coronavirus pandemic, WHO warns

Even with these government provisions to help, these communities are dealing with a substandard health-care system that cannot be fixed with temporary new funding, said Isadore Day, a former Ontario regional chief and the CEO of Bimaadzwin, an organization that focuses on economic development in First Nations communities.

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How COVID-19 is impacting the mental health of Indigenous people
How COVID-19 is impacting the mental health of Indigenous people

As well, Canada’s continued reopening and fears of a second wave in the fall may be a problem for Indigenous communities as many sit near the U.S.-Canada border, said Day.

“Given the fact that a lot of First Nations communities are border communities, and the families are connected… it creates a very porous scenario,” he said.

Leaders of Indigenous communities want to be part of the conversation with the Canadian government about decisions like opening up the border for these reasons, he said.

Underlying health disparities need to be addressed

The issues highlighted by the petition show the importance of recognizing the need for strengthening infrastructure and understanding social determinants of health in Indigenous communities, said Dr. Lisa Richardson, the faculty of medicine strategic advisor in Indigenous health at the University of Toronto.

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Leadership from Indigenous communities, including the strict shutting of reserve borders, has lessened the impact of COVID-19, when it may have been more devastating if those actions hadn’t been done, she said.

Read more: Canada’s Indigenous leaders say more help is needed as COVID-19 outbreaks rise

In Indigenous communities in provinces across the country, there are currently 352 confirmed cases, 30 hospitalizations and 314 recovered cases.

But beyond action taken to reduce case numbers, community concerns related to COVID-19 that are now emerging include issues related to mental health and well-being, and issues related to social determinants of health, like housing, said Richardson.

These issues are historical and linked to colonialism and anti-Indigenous government policies, including the residential school system that caused family separations and deaths.

Indigenous people and mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic
Indigenous people and mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic

Understanding the historical impact of disease on Indigenous people

To truly understand how to support Indigenous communities during the pandemic, there needs to be an ongoing discussion about the history of disease and how illness imported by those who colonized Canada ravaged those communities, said Karla Jessen Williamson, an assistant professor in educational foundations at the University of Saskatchewan.

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Read more: Many Saskatchewan First Nations residents are travelling hours to get coronavirus treatment

“Much of it has been a very, very dramatic loss for the Indigenous communities. That’s still very much in the memory of people,” she said. “And some of these diseases have been used against the Indigenous populations to do away with them.”

In the 16th century, diseases brought to Canada by Europeans, like smallpox and cholera, caused the widespread deaths of Indigenous people, Canada’s History Society says.

First Nations reserves were also disproportionately impacted by the Spanish flu in 1918.

Without proper communication with Indigenous communities and the continuous allocation of resources, there are fears COVID-19 could have a similar impact, said Williamson.

Removing travel restrictions that are currently protecting these communities, for instance, as Canada reopens would be like “igniting a fire” and could cause the disease to spread, she said. It’s why Williamson says she has not seen close family members who live in Iqaluit — to keep those communities safe.

“We need to be really cognizant of… the history of animosity towards the First Nations, at all levels of government,” she said.

“Canadians need to be able to talk openly. That’s what reconciliation is about, after all.”

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