COVID-19 and Indigenous Communities

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,

Today Team ReconciliAction YEG will discuss the impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous communities in Canada. 

The spread of COVID-19 has progressed at an alarming rate internationally, and it feels like it reaches another grim milestone every day. In Canada, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of tens of thousands and infected over 750,000 people. [1] As of January 20, 2021, the active cases of COVID-19 in First Nations communities in Canada reached an all-time high of 5,571.[2] Unfortunately, even the most remote Indigenous communities have seen the spread of this virus. For example, the isolated, fly-in community of Nunavik has seen 39 cases of COVID-19. Luckily, there have been no associated deaths. [3]

As we reported earlier in the year, the lack of data collection regarding Indigenous health outcomes will likely make tracking the impact on COVID-19 on Indigenous communities difficult. However, here is what Indigenous Services Canada has released so far* regarding First Nations communities and COVID-19:

  • There have been 13,873 confirmed positive cases
  • There have been 8,182 recovered cases
  • 120 people have died 
  • 9 out of 60 long-term care and related facilities on-reserve have been affected
    • Of those facilities, there have been 89 cases among residents 
    • The case fatality of those cases has been 15/89 or (17%)
  • Over 90% of the cases have been in Western Canada

*all data from Indigenous Services Canada, see footnote 2.

The spread of COVID-19 in Indigenous communities

To understand the spread of COVID-19, we have to take into consideration the factors that contribute to its spread on-reserve. As the Canadian Medical Association notes, public health measures aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19, like social distancing and hygiene practices, “require people to have housing, water, food and income security, which are often inadequate in Indigenous communities.”[4] In the context of a housing crisis in Indigenous communities, this caution rings true.

Covid

(Photo Credit: Women's College Hospital Healthcare, https://www.womenscollegehospital.ca/research,-education-and-innovation/indigenous-wellbeing-in-the-times-of-covid-19)

Without funding and resources to support these basic needs, how can Indigenous communities adhere to these guidelines and prevent the spread of the virus? 

Colonialism and COVID-19

Historically, settlers brought diseases like smallpox and the Spanish flu upon their arrival to Turtle Island, resulting in the death of thousands of Indigenous Peoples. [5] Along with the imposition of Western views of medicine over traditional Indigenous healing practices, the treatment of Indigenous peoples in healthcare has left lingering distrust, especially in the context of public health. Take, for instance, the Indian Hospitals. The government created these hospitals in response to the high rates of tuberculosis in government-run residential schools, to protect non-Indigenous peoples from the spread of tuberculosis, through racial segregation and inferior (and often harmful) healthcare.[6]  

Coqualeetza_2-940x306

(Photo credit: Telfer, Jean. “Coqualeetza Residential School in Sardis, Chilliwack, BC,” circa 1935-1939, taken from https://irshdc.ubc.ca/learn/indian-residential-schools/indian-hospitals-in-canada/)

The mistreatment of Indigenous peoples in the healthcare system is far from history—the recent death of Joyce Echaquan while in hospital is a painful reminder of this reality. As a result, the public health response to COVID-19 in Indigenous communities cannot be successful without recognition of and reconciliation with Canada’s colonial past and present.[7]

Vaccination and Indigenous Communities

The public vaccination process has been difficult due to problems with supply and delivery. [8] The Government of Canada has identified adults in Indigenous communities as a priority for early COVID-19 protection, and some vaccination of this population has started.[9] However, in some provinces Indigenous peoples living off-reserve have not been identified as having the same priority, despite data showing a higher incidence of poorer health outcomes in this population. [10] Whether the prioritization of Indigenous peoples who choose to get vaccinated will translate into reality remains to be seen, as many vaccinations are currently on pause due to supply shortages. Needless to say, Team ReconciliAction will be monitoring this progress carefully.

Thanks for reading! 

Team ReconciliAction YEG

1CTVNews.ca, “Tracking every case of COVID-19 in Canada” CTV News (Jan 25, 2021) online:<ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/tracking-every-case-of-covid-19-in-canada-1.4852102>.

2Indigenous Services Canada, “Government of Canada COVID-19 Update for Indigenous Peoples and communities” (January 20, 2021), online: Canada.ca <canada.ca/en/indigenous-services-canada/news/2021/01/government-of-canada-covid-19-update-for-indigenous-peoples-and-communities1.html>.

3Ibid.

4Lisa Richardson & Allison Crawford, COVID-19 and the decolonization of Indigenous public health, (2020) CMAJ 192 (38), DOI: 10.1503/cmaj.200852. 

5Ibid.

6Indian Residential School and History Centre, “Indian Hospitals in Canada” online: <irshdc.ubc.ca/learn/indian-residential-schools/indian-hospitals-in-canada/>.

7Richardson, supra note 4.

8John Paul Tasker, “As Canada falls behind other countries on vaccinations, Trudeau promises to 'scale up' deliveries”CBC News (January 8, 2021) online: <cbc.ca/news/politics/trudeau-vaccines-scale-up-canada-lags-1.5866552>.

9Government of Canada, “Vaccines and treatments for COVID-19: Vaccine rollout” (January 22, 2021), online: <canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/2019-novel-coronavirus-infection/prevention-risks/covid-19-vaccine-treatment/vaccine-rollout.html#a3>.

10Bryan Kennedy, “Toronto’s Indigenous population largely overlooked in COVID-19 vaccine plans, doctors who work with them say” Toronto Star (January 23, 2021)  online: <thestar.com/news/gta/2021/01/23/torontos-indigenous-population-largely-overlooked-in-covid-19-vaccine-plans-doctors-who-work-with-them-say.html>. 

COVID-19 and Indigenous Communities