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Indigenous communities not ready for possible COVID outbreaks

Indigenous communities in the NWT are not prepared for a possible outbreak of COVID-19 and assistance is needed.

“We don’t have the medical resources they have in the cities. We don't have the (medical) respiratory systems in our communities. If something were to happen we wouldn't be able to take in more patients,” Garry Bailey, president of the NWT Metis Nation told News/North on Friday.

“There are other health issues as well that we’ve been dealing with: diabetes, asthma, elderly people are monitored daily. Anything can happen.”

Indigenous communities in the NWT, including the NWT Metis Nation, are unprepared for an outbreak of COVID-19 and are in immediate need of the promised federal funding for coronavirus relief. The leaders pictured are, from left, Arthur Beck of the Fort Resolution Metis Council, Garry Bailey of the Northwest Territory Metis Nation, Ken Hudson of the Fort Smith Metis Council and Trevor Beck of the Hay River Metis Government Council.
Paul Bickford/NNSL photo

More than $11 million allocated for NWT communities

The federal government announced $305 million in funding through the Indigenous Community Support Fund in March. First Nations communities in the NWT will receive $6 million and the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (IRC) will receive $5.8 million. Metis communities across Canada have been allocated $30 million for their share.

Bailey said he’s optimistic about funding for the NWT Metis Nation but added that the government had’t yet released the funding criteria.

“I hope to hear something by April 6. We’ve got to develop an application for it,” he said. “Funding would definitely help us... We’re down on masks and hand sanitizers. We‘re short of all that stuff. Another big concern is our nurses are doing shift work when they come into our communities. We’re concerned they’ll be short-staffed. It could get down to the point where we’re down to only one nurse. Our nurses (might) end up almost working 24 hours a day.”

The Metis Nation president said a lot of its members have lost their jobs because of the economic fallout from the pandemic and people are trying to get out onto the land to maintain social distancing.

Dene communities in dire need

The needs of Dene communities in the NWT are also high and Dene Nation chief Norman Yakeleya told reporters on March 26 that “everyone is trying really hard, but we’re not ready.”

The chief, speaking over satellite phone from his cabin near Fort Providence, outlined the findings of a survey of the NWT’s 27 Dene communities, which comprise 15,000 people.

"We have at least 3,200 people that likely need additional medical assistance because they’re in the high-risk (health) category,” Yakeleya said, citing issues such as diabetes, heart conditions and pregnant women. “Eighty-nine per cent of the communities indicate they need additional medical assistance. All of them require disposable gloves, masks and sanitizers.

“Forty-seven per cent have indicated they have no way of medically transporting any ill people to the larger centres” because many communities are accessible only by plane, he said.

The capacity to conduct swab tests for COVID-19 was uncertain because many remote communities don't have full-time nurses and Yakeleya said he has been asking the health authorities to set up drive-through clinics in the communities.

“The picture in our small communities indicates they’re in dire straits," he said. "We need help. We’re asking the federal government to do whatever it can to get the funding into our Indigenous communities.”

Yakeleya said the Dene Nation has also asked the GNWT to increase the quantities of medical supplies in the communities. 

News/North reached out to the IRC for comment on the coronavirus situation but didn’t receive a response by press time.

As of April 2, there were two positive tests for COVID-19 in the NWT, one in Yellowknife and one in Inuvik.