Health Minister Patty Hajdu highlighted the risk for Indigenous people from the COVID-19 global pandemic due to underlying health conditions during a phone interview.
“This disease tends to affect people more significantly who are older or who have underlying health conditions and diabetes, for example, high blood pressure, heart disease,” Hajdu says. “Those kind of people have a harder time with this illness, and because so many Indigenous people have higher rates for these illnesses and also live in a higher level of poverty in First Nations communities, the risk is much higher.”
Hajdu says that is why it is important to protect First Nations communities, by first of all trying to prevent the entry of COVID-19.
“But secondly, if there are cases to isolate them and treat them quickly so the disease doesn’t spread throughout the community,” Hajdu says. “And that’s really the goal of the efforts by the federal government and by First Nations leaders all across the country is to try to be ready for any cases and then to have the capacity to isolate those cases very quickly so the spread doesn’t continue.”
Hajdu says the person with the confirmed case of COVID-19 in Eabametoong is currently isolated and taking precautions so they are not coming into close contact with others as of April 10.
“We do know that self-isolation is harder in First Nations often because of crowded housing situations,” Hajdu says. “But many First Nations are making other arrangements with the help of funding from the federal government and other sources to have isolation spaces, so potentially the person can move into a rental unit or a space that is available in the community, maybe at the community centre or an unused facility, that allows them to isolate safely from their family during their time of illness.”
Hajdu says Indigenous Services Canada has been working with First Nations to help strengthen their pandemic plans to make sure they reflect the realities of COVID-19.
“The funds that are being provided directly to First Nations to prepare also are very flexible,” Hajdu says. “So each community can use that money in a way that is going to best help their own efforts and their own reality.”
Hajdu encourages First Nations people to “keep up their guard” even though they have closed their communities, noting that people who are very mildly ill or asymptomatic can transmit COVID-19.
“The advice is really for everyone to make sure they are checking their symptoms — we have an app now called Canada COVID-19,” Hajdu says, noting it is available on the Google and Apple app stores. “You can download it on your phone — it’s free. You can do a symptom checker on the app which can give you a sense on whether or not you should be checked for COVID-19.”
Hajdu says everyone needs to take the COVID-19 precautions seriously to protect themselves and their loved ones.
“This is our responsibility as citizens to do these very uncomfortable things until we know we can actually manage this disease with medication or with a vaccine,” Hajdu says. “It is a hard time for Canadians, but it is ultimately the only way we are going to get through this is for all of us to listen to the public health advice of all of the public health officials.”
Hajdu says Indigenous Services Canada has been distributing hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment (PPE) to First Nations communities.
“As of April 7, they processed and shipped 394 orders for PPE and for components of the test kit that includes a swab so that First Nations can actually do the testing there and send in those tests for results,” Hajdu says. “So if a First
Nations community does not have what they need, they should be letting Indigenous Services Canada know so that we can make sure they have the supplies they need, but from the notes I have these supplies have gone out to communities.”
Hajdu says the COVID-19 global pandemic has taught countries around the world about the challenges of relying solely on a global supply chain for essential health care supplies such as PPE.
“That system is fragile and we also have to have the capacity to supply ourselves with a variety of different things,” Hajdu says. “What we’ve seen is 5,000 companies step up, put their hands up and say they want to be part of the solution and I think we’ll see more and more of that domestic solution to many other challenges we will face over the course of this pandemic.”