As the number of COVID-19 cases reported on Manitoba Hutterite colonies continue to climb — along with fears of both the virus and the stigma that can come with it — community members are being encouraged to respond to any discrimination met while off the colony with grace.
On Monday, Manitoba health reported 49 new cases of novel coronavirus across the province and health officials said many are linked to an increase in targeted testing on a few Hutterite colonies in different regions across the province.
Kenny Wollmann, who sits on the Hutterian Safety Council’s COVID-19 task force, told Global News said Hutterite communities are making adjustments to their daily life and routines due to the spike in cases, and that includes how they deal with the attitudes of others outside the colony.
He said members have experienced stigma when out in public, creating feelings of fear, concern, and self-consciousness about being singled out.
“There are some people who are incredibly frustrated by it, and even angry, and in some cases one could say that that’s justifiable because some of this stigma has been directed at people who’ve been doing everything right,” Wollmann said Monday.
“That’s the problem with stigma — it does not differentiate between who deserves negative responses and who doesn’t.
“(But) on the other hand we’ve been encouraging Hutterite people — when they’re in difficult situations — to respond with grace, to avoid making a difficult situation even worse.”
Manitoba’s chief public officer of health, Dr. Brent Roussin, said Monday 236 of the province’s 993 cases of COVID-19 cases reported since March are tied to what he’s calling “communal living communities.”
Roussin isn’t identifying the type of community for fear of stigmatization but says there are multiple Hutterite colonies that have positive cases.
The move to not identify the communities comes after provincial health officials came under fire from Hutterian leaders last month for identifying cases on Hutterite colonies in specific regions of the province because they said it was leading to stigmatization.
In July, Paul Waldner from the CanAm Hutterite Colony in southwest Manitoba sent a letter to Premier Brian Pallister and Health Minister Cameron Friesen warning that if the practice was not stopped, he would file a human rights complaint.
At the time, there had been reports of discrimination against Hutterites after outbreaks in multiple colonies in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
On Monday, Roussin acknowledged there are currently 148 active cases on communal living communities across Manitoba.
But he said much of the increase in cases reported Sunday and Monday can be tied to proactive tracing and testing — including mobile testing on colonies — that has been underway in the communities since late last week.
He said in this case health officials felt it was important to let Manitobans know why more cases were being identified.
“As we saw, especially over the weekend, such a large proportion of the new cases were a part of a planned testing strategy, we felt it was imperative to communicate that to Manitobans, to get a good sense of the actual numbers we’re getting in communities that we see a greater proportion of, you know, very tight clusters,” Roussin said Monday.
“As we’re reaching out, working with the communities — communities are co-operative and have a lot of interest in this — then we’re going to see cases that are related to that.
“That’s an indication that public health in those communities are being proactive, self isolating and following public health advice.”
Wollmann said the task force, a volunteer group of spiritual leaders, first responders and educators set up in March, has been working diligently with public health officials and government to make sure Hutterites respond in the best way to the ongoing pandemic.
Inwardly, the task force has provided education and guidance for communities, which Wollmann says has led to a shift in attitudes around the virus.
“People that initially thought ‘oh this will blow over in a week’ are now realizing that this is going to be with us for sometime and we may as well need to learn to live with that,” he said.
“All across Canada you have Hutterite communities making adjustments to their daily rituals and how their daily life runs.
“These adjustments happen in the workplace, these adjustments in our daily meals, Hutterites eat three meals a day in a communal setting and that has had to be changed.”
On Monday, Roussin said he expects there may be more cases reported in communal living communities, especially if the targeted testing campaigns continue.
Roussin also reiterated his calls to end stigma in all communities affected by the virus.
“We know that (stigma) plays a negative role in our ability to garner cooperation with public health and public public health policies,” he said.
“So really, just to be kind, avoid stigma, and public health will continue to be able to cooperate with with many communities who are dealing with cases at this point.”
— With files from The Canadian Press
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