Amid growing instances of COVID-19’s community transmission in Canada, Indigenous communities are bracing themselves as the virus migrates beyond urban hotspots to rural and remote pockets of the country.
The virus will have grave impacts on the world’s most vulnerable populations and is now highlighting existing vulnerabilities in Canada’s Indigenous communities.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, expressed concern for the outbreaks in high-risk settings susceptible to rapid spread.
"A single case in any First Nations, Inuit, or Métis community is high cause for concern. These communities are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19 due to distances, access to necessary resources, and underlying health conditions," she said during a press conference.
In a seperate news conference, Marc Miller, the federal minister of Indigenous Services, said that while cases on reserves remain comparatively low, no one should be complacent. He added that while many Indigenous communities are implementing aggressive measures to help keep the COVID-19 out, they could still be more greatly affected by an outbreak, due to long-standing social and economic inequities.
COVID-19 Is Highlighting Long-Standing Indigenous Issues
Isolation, so far, has protected many of Canada’s remote Indigenous communities from coronavirus, as they are distanced from big cities, where the virus is taking its heaviest toll.
However, as COVID-19 cases begin to pop up in Indigenous communities nationwide, isolation may end up being their greatest weakness.
Should people in these remote communities contract the virus, there are few accessible hospitals and those nearby are ill-equipped to accommodate a serious outbreak and influx of patients. That fear is compounded by the fact that Indigenous communities are uniquely exposed to the ravages of COVID-19, due to higher rates of pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and respiratory illness.
Sweeping one-size-fits-all federal preventative recommendations are incompatible with the circumstances of rural reserves. Frequent handwashing presupposes access to clean water — many reserves are under boiling or do not drink advisories. Federal calls to social distance or self-isolate hinge on access to stable spacious housing, but Indigenous communities nationwide struggle with chronic overcrowding. As merchants forgo cash transactions to limit contact and turn to debit and credit cards, essential supplies end up out of reach for those on low or fixed income with limited payment options.
Emergency Funding For Canada’s Indigenous Communities
On March 24, the Assembly of First Nations declared a national state of emergency, calling "for increased resources and support to First Nations — based on needs and equity," stressing the need for "specific consideration for northern, remote, and isolated communities."
Day laters, on March 26, the federal government pledged $305 million to the immediate needs of Indigenous communities — First Nations communities are receiving $215 million, Inuit communities $45 million, and Métis Nation communities $30 million. On April 4, an additional $10 million was announced to support emergency shelters on reserves and in the Yukon to support Indigenous women and children fleeing violence.
But Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde says money earmarked for First Nations for COVID-19 to date is not enough and called for additional financial aid.
"Our child poverty rates are four times that of other children in Canada, overcrowding is seven times higher, and the unemployment rate before the pandemic was two-and-a-half times the rest of Canada," Bellegarde told MPs on the House of Commons finance committee.
Yesterday, I spoke at the standing committee of #FINA to urge the government to support First Nations during COVID-19 and make funding available to communities as soon as possible. Listen here: https://t.co/SB8q10ZSU3— Perry Bellegarde (@perrybellegarde) April 9, 2020
Beyond the physiological concerns, livelihoods are also at stake. Indigenous leaders have urged the government to also account for the socioeconomic ramifications of the health crisis. For instance, many Indigenous business owners don’t qualify for the Canada Emergency Business Account, falling short of the $50,000 minimum payroll requirement for the loan.
While COVID-19 challenges and tests the country at large, Canada cannot overlook the unique vulnerabilities and dangerous burdens the virus will impose on Indigenous communities. Officials have reassured that, as the crisis evolves, so too will their response.
In his latest news conference, when pressed on preparedness and response plans, Miller said: "Let me be clear. This is just the beginning. We know more support will be needed. And we will be there to make sure no Indigenous community is left behind."