Too Little, Too Late

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Cut off from access to the best hospitals, the best medical resources, and government support for remote indigenous communities in Canada. As governments around the world scrambled to act to protect their interests and their citizens as the severity of COVID-19 first became apparent, historically marginalized communities needs were disregarded. The indigenous people of Canada were no exception. Indigenous tribes in Canada have survived colonization and racism from the Canadian government for centuries. Despite the clear inequities and barriers to success they have faced, there has never been the proper amount of institutional support for these communities. COVID-19 acted to exacerbate existing problems and finally encouraged the government to act to protect these vulnerable populations. However, this doesn’t excuse the centuries of mistreatment. These types of initiatives need to continue and be expanded on if indigenous people are ever going to be able to fully claim their rightful place in society. 

Historical Challenges

Public health issues have always existed for the indigenous communities of Canada. They can be traced back to the initial colonization of Canada by Europeans who brought diseases such as smallpox, influenza, TB, HIV, HepC, and H1N1. Due to the spread of these diseases, public health practices became a mechanism through which colonizers imposed social control on indigenous populations. Colonialism contributed to unequal racial power dynamics as well as a lack of faith in government systems and institutions. Even more recently, incidents have continued to undermine indigenous trust in healthcare. In the 1950s, Inuit experiences with tuberculosis treatments were so scarring that many indigenous still refuse to seek treatment for the disease. There continues to be issues of racism in healthcare systems around the world, including in Canada. This racism has contributed to phenomena such as COVID vaccine hesitancy in indigenous communities. However, indigenous people were already more susceptible to COVID-19 due to the remote geography of their communities, increased incidence of underlying health issues, and lack of access to basic needs. Indigenous people are more likely to suffer from asthma, diabetes, obesity, and arthritis. Lack of access to clean water and housing is another problem that indigenous groups face. 58 communities are under a boil water advisory. Lack of cell reception was another issue that was only exacerbated as all aspects of life shifted online. Overall, indigenous peoples entered the pandemic at a disadvantage. There was to be no expectation that the government would intervene to assist them. To provide a sense of perspective, Amnesty International previously issued a statement saying the Canadian government’s support for indigenous communities “often [fell] far short of what is needed.” There was to be no expectation that Canada’s pandemic response would be any different. 

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Indigenous Communities’ Lifestyle and COVID-19

Indigenous communities also were especially vulnerable to COVID because their lifestyles more easily facilitated its spread. The housing conditions of indigenous people are conducive to COVID spread. A combination of poor living conditions and lack of healthcare services increased indigenous risk for the disease. Issues with a lack of housing meant big families often all lived together which produced problems such as having no space for positive family members to quarantine. The economic conditions that many inidgenous people live in also fueled the spread of COVID. Additionally, those of indigenous backgrounds are more likely to be lower income with precarious employment, additional factors that lead to overcrowded housing. A substantial portion of essential workers are not white, meaning those most at risk for getting COVID are people of color. Because their families are also people of color and they often live in communities of color, the risk of COVID spread increases. In the initial stages of the pandemic, a series of deadly outbreaks occurred in senior centers and long-term care facilities.  Many of the caretakers in long-term care facilities were racialized women. Outbreaks also sprouted up left and right in the food production chain. Similarly, racialized workers also comprised a significant part of the agricultural and food production workforces. 

Data on the impact of COVID-19 on indigenous communities initially painted a bleak picture. A study found that in First Nations people, the rates of COVID infection were 40% higher than the rest of the population. Across Canada, people of color made up 77% of COVID cases. Data from Toronto and Ottawa also indicated that COVID cases were between 1.5 and 5 times higher in racialized populations. Underlying factors that enable COVID spread and the disproportionate data demonstrates that indigenous people’s history of oppression once again put them at a disadvantage. The responsibility to protect vulnerable populations should fall on the government. However, the data shows that any government action would already come too late. This illustrates perfectly the Canadian government’s lack of regard for human rights. While this problem is not unique to Canada, it is something people around the world need to recognize in order to better increase equity across diverse groups. 

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Response to the Pandemic

The response to the issues of COVID have been twofold with initiatives coming both out of the Canadian government and from within indigenous communities. While indigenous people make up 4.9% of the Canadian population, they were only receiving 1% of government COVID relief funding. There also have been many calls for Canada to gather more race based data to better understand the impact of COVID on communities of color. As COVID began to ravage the world, indigenous leaders stepped up to begin their own initiatives to minimize the impact of COVID on their communities. Leaders negotiated funding for PPE, water stations, food delivery, and increased access to testing. They also began a series of public health campaigns designed to provide more information about the novel coronavirus. Indigenous leaders created their own set of public health orders for their communities to curb the spread. Such measures included restricting travel within their territories and closing their borders. These measures proved helpful as COVID infection rates stabilized. While much of the initial action to curb the spread of COVID and gain the necessary funding for an appropriate response came from indigenous communities themselves, the Canadian government has since expanded their response and improved the resources available to indigenous peoples. Government officials have partnered with indigenous leaders to provide more information on the vaccine and to prioritize traditional healers and knowledge keepers in the vaccine distribution process. Ottawa also pledged an additional $1.2 billion in funding to indigenous communities to help with hiring more staff, buying more PPE, adapting existing facilities, and providing home care to the most vulnerable. The Canadian government has mobilized their resources to improve the vaccine distribution process to indigenous peoples. Canadian Armed Forces have been deployed to support vaccine distribution in 32 communities in the Nishnawbe Aski Nations. Vaccinations have already begun in over 400 indigenous communities nationwide and over 25% of indigenous adults have been vaccinated. The Canadian government has recently pledged to prioritize indigenous groups in vaccine distribution which will make all indigenous adults eligible to get vaccinated in the 2nd stage of vaccine distribution. 

While the recent actions of the Canadian government have made strides towards providing more government assistance to indigenous groups, it comes too little, too late. Given the historical circumstances that have directly fueled the current challenges that face indigenous communities, more initiative was needed earlier on. The COVID-19 pandemic merely served to expose many of the human rights problems inherent in indigenous communities. Prioritizing delivering basic needs to indigenous communities shouldn’t only be made a priority during a public health crisis. Governments worldwide should use the pandemic as impetus to better educate themselves on indigenous issues and take the opportunity to help reverse the havoc that colonization wrecked on indigenous populations. Now is the time to elevate indigenous people’s position in society so that those who have lived on this land the longest are not disadvantaged in many aspects of life.