Manitoba First Nations lock down and ask for help as COVID-19 threatens communities

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Infections, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are increasing at an alarming rate among Manitoba First Nations, prompting many to lock up and call for help as they try to protect their most vulnerable members.“We’re in a bubble right now. And if we had had a bubble earlier, I think my aunt would still have lived today, ”said Rhonda Head, whose aunt, Cecilia Head, died of complications from COVID-19 on November 10, and whose uncle, Walter, is also infected and in hospital.

“His condition was deteriorating, but there was an update from my one of my cousins ​​and she said that he is improving slightly but will stay in the hospital for a very long time”, a- she said from her home on the Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN). , about a seven hour drive north of Winnipeg.

Cecilia Head, right, was the first victim of COVID-19 in the Cree Nation of Opaskwayak in Manitoba. Her husband, Walter, is in the hospital battling the coronavirus. These are just two of the Aboriginal faces behind Manitoba’s grim statistics. (Submitted by Rhonda Head)

As of Thursday morning, all of Manitoba was in a critical Code Red pandemic situation as hospital intensive care units were near full capacity. Doctors and nurses denounce how close the system is to overload.

During the first wave of the pandemic, most of the COVID-19 cases in Manitoba were travel-related, so when First Nations locked down, they were successful in keeping the coronavirus out.

But now there is widespread community transmission throughout the province. The virus has crept into many First Nations, hitting many of them hard.

Disproportionate COVID cases among First Nations

According to the Manitoba First Nations Health and Social Affairs Secretariat, a group that promotes Indigenous participation in the health care system, First Nations people make up about 9% of Manitoba’s population, but they represent :

  • 18 percent of the province’s COVID-19 cases.

  • 24% of hospitalizations.

  • 35 percent of patients in intensive care beds.

  • 12 percent of deaths.

Many remote First Nations are already struggling with overpopulation, poverty, lack of clean water and adequate sanitation, food insecurity, and chronic diseases like diabetes, which can make people more vulnerable to infections.

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“Over the past few weeks, we have seen an alarming increase in COVID cases in the general Canadian population, as well as in some First Nations communities, linked to complacency, at times, linked to large gatherings such as funerals, like some weddings, like gatherings and also by visiting hot spots outside of Indigenous communities and unknowingly bringing the virus back into the community, ”said Dr. Tom Wong, Chief Medical Officer of Indigenous Services Canada (CSI), in an interview in Ottawa.

Nationally, as of November 9, ISC reports that the percentage of First Nations people living on-reserve who test positive for COVID-19 is half the rate for the general Canadian population.

Meanwhile, the death rate from COVID-19 cases among First Nations people living on reserves is about one-fifth that of the general Canadian population.

In Manitoba, however, statistics on aboriginal communities are moving in the opposite direction, which is “worrying,” Wong said. He highlighted the province’s overall provincial infection rate, which is currently the highest per capita in Canada.

As of November 12, Manitoba had 606 cases on First Nations reserves, compared to 187 in British Columbia, 168 in Ontario and 117 in Quebec. Alberta had 665, according to Indigenous Services Canada.

“We are here to support First Nations, Métis and Inuit wherever they live, including urban areas, so that they do not develop disease and end up succumbing to the disease,” Wong said. .

Surge capacity from Ottawa

That’s why the federal government announced this week an additional $ 61.4 million for Manitoba First Nations and their urban members.

“The overwhelming refrain, the concern we kept hearing, is that ‘we have our pandemic response plans that we fine-tuned throughout Wave 1. We need financial resources, ”said Marc Miller, Minister of Indigenous Services.

The money provided by Ottawa can be spent on everything from pandemic supplies like plexiglass to checkpoint security and mental health services. It also aims to help those who live off reserve.

Ottawa also sent 44 paramedics and nearly 200 nurses to Indigenous communities across Canada and made 160 temporary structures available for isolation and testing sites.

Manitoba First Nations leaders are happy with the injection of money, although they say they could always use more. They are less satisfied with the management of the pandemic by the province.

“I think it’s unfortunate now that the province is declaring everyone Code Red. It’s a little late. We should have done this two months ago. You should have listened to the direction your partners were giving you, and unfortunately the consequences are dire, ”said Arlen Dumas, leader of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

“We are well aware of the vulnerability of our population. And I think it’s true now. “

Dr. Marcia Anderson is one of the Indigenous physicians leading Manitoba’s Rapid Response Teams, which host health experts in First Nations communities for 7-10 days to assist them with the surge capacity of the COVID-19. (Submitted by Dr Marcia Anderson)

“The faster we contain it, the fewer deaths there are… we’ll see”

First Nations-led rapid response teams work in a handful of communities, including York Factory First Nation, which has been in lockdown since a family of seven tested positive for the disease during the week last, and the Cree Nation of Opaskwayak, which has 20 percent infection rates.

The focus is on up to 10 days of emergency support while longer-term plans can be made, said Dr. Marcia Anderson, one of the doctors overseeing the program.

“You have only one nursing station. Often these nursing stations operate at an understaffed base capacity, so as the number of cases increases their contacts can quickly overwhelm the health care capacity in the community and there are fewer options for it. safe isolation. Said Anderson, executive director of Aboriginal academic affairs at the University of Manitoba’s Ongomiizwin Aboriginal Institute of Health and Healing.

“With rapid tests, we try to do [it] very quickly… identify cases and close contacts and make sure they are safely isolated to try to reduce this transmission. ”

Rhonda Head performs at the No Stone Unturned concert honoring the missing and murdered Indigenous girls in Winnipeg on August 25, 2018. She is now working on songs to sing at her aunt’s online memorial. Cecilia Head died of complications from COVID-19. (Edith Turner)

Rhonda Head said she believed local leaders were doing all they could to protect the community. But she, too, fears that this is not enough.

“It’s real. If this is happening here in my community in northern Manitoba, it is real. It is happening everywhere. Let’s try to flatten the curve, ”she said.

As Head practices a Cree anthem to sing at her aunt’s online memorial, all she can do is follow public health orders and pray for her uncle.

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