The Southern Chiefs’ Organization declared a state of emergency Tuesday.
Grand Chief Jerry Daniels wants this move to trigger the regional office for Indigenous Services Canada to provide needed supplies to 34 southern Manitoba First Nations "immediately and expeditiously."
The organization also wants a centralized command centre for the 34 communities for proper monitoring, which would also be used as a link for communities to better deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
Along with supplies and a command centre, the First Nations need additional health-care workers.
At a technical briefing for media Friday, Indigenous Services indicated supplies and health-care support would be forthcoming for First Nations.
That hasn’t happened, Daniels said.
"We were told yesterday, again, that everything was going to be provided but, problem is, it hasn’t been provided yet. So that’s why we emphasized the urgency of the situation," he said.
"Indigenous Services Canada is working at every level with Indigenous leadership and communities on awareness and confirming necessary resources are in place to prepared to respond to a COVID-19 outbreak should one occur," stated department spokesperson Rola Tfaili by email.
Daniels confirmed staff from his organization are in daily discussion with provincial and federal government representatives.
But Daniels emphasized that health outcomes are already an issue in First Nations.
"In terms of health, we have shortages of staff already and the health outcomes, obviously, have been very bad for a very long time because we live in a two-tiered health system and we’ve seen some of the systemic barriers. We can reference Brian Sinclair and Jordan River Anderson as
examples of that," said Daniels.
Sinclair, a First Nations man in Winnipeg, was left to die in the emergency waiting room at the Health Science Centre. Anderson, a child from Norway House Cree Nation in Manitoba, spent two years unnecessarily in hospital while the province and the federal government argued over who was responsible for paying his at-home care. He died in hospital at the age of five.
"So that’s why we’re particularly worried and, as you likely know and many people know, the lifespans of First Nations in Manitoba are 11 years less than Manitobans, and that is because of a lack of equitable health care. It’s been a human rights violation for a very, very long time. In situations like this, it compounds the issue," Daniels said.
Daniels listed what supplies the First Nations need: soap, sanitizer, disinfectants, personal protective equipment, clinical and medical supplies, as well as food — due to food security issues in communities — and water. Communities also require community training to deal with emerging issues.
"Right now, communities are spending what they have, what’s available, for them to prepare. They haven’t been given any assurances from the federal government in terms of resources being made available," Daniels said.
"So what we’re seeing is that leaders are coming out of pocket on this and we’re doing the best that we can. They’re coming together as much as they can, and they are particularly interested in protecting our most vulnerable, those who are 35 (years old) plus and those with compromised immune systems."
Socio-economic circumstances of First Nations mean that, generally, people’s immune systems aren’t as strong as they might otherwise be.
While each First Nation is supposed to be following its own pandemic and emergency plans, Daniels said the problem is preparation, providing emergency preparedness and comprehensive community planning has been at the discretion of the Indigenous Services regional office in Manitoba.
"From what I see, there’s a lack of it or not enough emphasis being put on preparedness," he said.
In the weeks and possibly months to come, food will definitely prove to be a big issue, Daniels said.
"Especially if there’s transportation and supply shortages that happen if this takes months to resolve. Which is likely the case, is what we’re hearing."
Daniels said he doesn’t think any of the 34 southern First Nations is stopping the flow of people in and out of communities, but they are advising that people don’t travel and, if they do, to do so only if necessary.
"The problem is that, when we look to Italy, when they quarantined a whole section there, there was at least 10,000 people who didn’t follow the advice and probably exasperated the issue even more," he said.
"That’s our concern here in Manitoba, that people don’t consider the seriousness of the situation and how their actions as individuals can compound the issue. That’s why we made sure that people understand just how serious this issue is. We would rather be overreacting than to say that we never did enough when the time came.
"That’s why we got decisive action."
In the news release announcing the state of emergency, Pine Creek First Nation Chief Karen Batson urged First Nations to follow the advice of public health officials.
"The best advice is to stay at home, support each other, and ensure that all our elders are taken care of," she stated.
Chief Sheldon Kent of Black River First Nation and chairperson of the First Nations Health and Social Secretariat of Manitoba stressed that First Nations are doing the best they can to prepare and support people, but that there needs to be more support and communication from government in light of
health realities outlined by Daniels.
Daniels also urged First Nations to follow provincial protocol if anyone suspects they have contracted the illness: call Health Links at 204-788-8200 or toll-free at 1-888-315-9257, and follow instructions provided.
The province also launched an online screening tool Monday night at sharedhealthmb.ca/covid19/screening-tool/
» Michele LeTourneau covers indigenous matters for The Brandon Sun under the Local Journalism Initiative, a federally funded program that supports the creation of original civic journalism.
WHAT INDIGENOUS SERVICES CANADA SAYS IT'S DOING
Outreach is being done to co-ordinate efforts with Indigenous leadership, including the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Métis National Council.
ISC is working with First Nation communities to ensure pandemic plans are in place and updated; and, is actively working directly with communities to support them in the revision of plans to ensure that communities are prepared.
This ongoing work is supported by Budget 2019’s first-ever investment of $79 million over five years to increase resiliency and emergency management on-reserve and to enable the development of a network of regional health emergency coordinators, prevention training, and improving capacity to protect Indigenous communities.
ISC has multiple systems in place to prepare for, detect and limit the spread of infectious diseases, including COVID-19. This includes working with regional offices to prepare a surge capacity response plan related to personal protective equipment, medications and nursing surge capacity, including the possible requirement for cross-registration between provinces for nurses and other health professionals if required.
In addition, ISC continues to engage regularly with local health directors, health workers and nurses through various means and via regional medical officers of health. These medical officers are also working with provincial partners in ensuring that First Nations populations are fully integrated into provincial plans.
To that effect, ISC has a network of regional emergency management and communicable disease emergency coordinators, as well as regional medical officers to advise and support First Nations across provinces and lead public health emergency preparedness and responses.
Part of the work to inform communities is also done through communication to Indigenous partners and regions through the Communicable Disease Working Group Secretariat; membership includes regional medical officers from all regions and key regional program leads. This is in addition to sharing public health communication to the First Nation population living on-reserve as well as the distribution of messages for community radio/television stations and for use by front line workers in various Indigenous languages.
A Federal/Provincial/Territorial Special Advisory Committee for COVID-19 was also put in place and reports to the Conference of Deputy Ministers of Health. Its work is focused on the co-ordination of federal, provincial and territorial preparedness and response across Canada’s health sector, for all Canadians, including First Nations, Inuit and Métis.
The Public Health Agency of Canada, provinces and territories are currently developing surveillance systems to track COVID-19. A process to identify and report cases/clusters is being established, building on established influenza reporting systems and lessons learned from H1N1.
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