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‘People are crying on the phone’: Indigenous communities grapple with PPE shortages

Click to play video '“People are crying on the phone:” Indigenous communities grapple with PPE shortages' “People are crying on the phone:” Indigenous communities grapple with PPE shortages
WATCH: As variants of COVID-19 continue to spread from coast-to-coast to coast, Indigenous communities have been left with worries about access to personal protective equipment. But help may soon be on the way for many of them. A grass-roots organization from Ottawa is stepping in with support -- even if it means going into debt. Morganne Campbell has the story.

A grass-roots organization based out of Ottawa has shipped more than 1.5 million pieces of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to Indigenous communities in provinces across Canada, highlighting the need for additional supports in remote parts of the country.

“We are struggling to keep up with the demand and I hate turning people away,” explains Claudine Santos, one of five-volunteers at VIO Volunteers.

VIO Volunteers was created to provide PPE to Canada’s northern, remote and Indigenous communities. In May, it was designated a not-for-profit charity and since then has distributed masks, face shields, disposable gowns, gloves and hand sanitizer to communities in five provinces, including Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, Manitoba and Nova Scotia.

Read more: ‘This is an unfolding nightmare’: Shamattawa First Nation COVID-19 outbreak worsens

“I can’t afford to go into further debt with VIO to meet the need but the needs are so great so it’s hard to fight that temptation to say, ‘oh, what’s another $1,000 dollars if that’s 5,000 masks delivered to a community,” Santos said, adding that the organization depends solely on donations.

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The not-for-profit has delivered 60,000 masks by land and air to Matawa First Nation in Northern Ontario, a Tribal Council that oversees nine communities, many of which are so remote you can only fly in and out.

“If we get the virus that’s one thing, but access to healthcare is a whole other issue,” explained Kathy Brady, the Regional Priorities and Jurisdiction Manager.

Brady says the communities deal with several issues that compound fears and issues associated with the virus, such as housing, drinking water, food security concerns and access to timely healthcare in the forefront.

For example, when someone gets sick in one of the remote communities, they have to be flown out, but flying is dependant on not only availability but weather conditions, as well.

“We are very scared,” says Brady, who finds some relief in the administering of the COVID-19 vaccine to the most vulnerable living within the community.

Read more: ‘Grim’ COVID-19 data highlights inequities on Saskatchewan reserves

The federal government says 83,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in more than 400 First Nations.

“We are vulnerable, so getting vaccinations as they’re starting to roll-out is great but it puts us in a very precarious position for any of our communities,” added Brady.

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Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 200 on-reserve First Nations people have died from the virus.

While Indigenous communities do their best to protect their Elders and Knowledge Keepers, creating a stockpile of PPE has been a challenge even with support from the Federal government.

“Access to care and inequalities have just really demonstrated themselves in a real way for Indigenous communities in the north,” explains Allison Deer, a Senior Projects Advisor for Bimaadzwin, an advocacy group dedicated to advancing First Nations. It was formed in July 2018 by former Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day.

Bimaadzwin has supported the initiative by connecting community leaders in need to VIO Volunteers through what is referred to as the “Moccasin Telegraph.”

“We were able to get 1.5 million masks out to communities just through a small network of people. If I was the federal government I should be able to look at those inequities and be able to earmark dollars and supplies that are required,” adds Deer.

Indigenous Services Canada is supporting communities by actively sending personal protective equipment and working with community health services to provide surge capacity and testing.

The Canadian Armed Forces is on the ground in several First Nation communities, including the Pauingassi First Nation in Manitoba, the Fort Nelson First Nation in British Columbia, the Hatchet Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan and the Muskrat Dam Lake First Nation in Ontario, to help communities manage COVID-19 outbreaks and vaccine distribution.

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“Some of the communities that we’ve been talking to recently have been so upset by what’s happening in their communities with COVID and the lack of PPE that people are crying on the phone. We didn’t realize this,” explains Dr. Anna Banerji, an Infectious Disease Specialist at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto.

Banerji has been assisting in the initiative.

Read more: Coronavirus: Ontario to begin vaccinating northern First Nations communities

“I think this government so far has done more for indigenous communities with COVID than they have in the past,” she said, but believes more still needs to be done.

“We’re asking Canadians to help VIO Volunteers get masks into these communities, especially the communities that are having outbreaks right now that you’re not hearing of in the media.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 210 on-reserve First Nations people have died from the novel coronavirus.

According to data compiled by the federal government, the rate of reported cases of COVID-19 in First Nations living on reserves is currently 40 per cent higher than the rate in the general Canadian population.