The NWT has got to be one of the easiest places in the world to get the COVID-19 vaccine. We have had early access to the vaccine, and 51 per cent of the adult population has received two Moderna doses and is now fully vaccinated. We still have lots of vaccine doses to go around, and we will be getting even more in the next month or two – enough to fully vaccinate 85 per cent of the adult population.
This is in stark contrast to southern Canada, where only 2.4 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated. Doses are not readily available to all those who live in the south, and even if you are eligible to be vaccinated getting a shot can be a time-consuming and complicated process. Things are even worse in places like India, where there is a severe shortage of vaccines in the face of the worst COVID-19 wave in the world, with 2.2 million new cases over the past week alone.
Bottom line is that we in the NWT are pretty spoiled. If you live in the NWT and you want to get vaccinated, it’s not a problem.
And yet despite our easy access to the vaccine, not enough of us are getting the poke. Dr. Kandola has often said that we will need to have about 75 per cent of the adult population vaccinated to achieve so-called “herd immunity,” at which point we should be able to lift many of the pandemic-related restrictions that are currently hindering our lives. While our towns and some regions like the Dehcho are getting there, with over 50 per cent of residents having been fully vaccinated, others such as the Tlicho and Sahtu regions are lagging behind. What gives?
Before we start labelling people as crazy anti-vaxxers, let’s consider that there may be valid reasons for some people’s reluctance to get vaccinated. In many of our communities, there is well-founded mistrust of the Canadian medical system. It is well documented that Indigenous peoples were subject to medical and nutritional abuse in residential schools and so-called “Indian hospitals” – everything from experimental medicine testing to forced sterilizations.
In the 1940s and 1950s, many people from our communities were sent away to southern tuberculosis hospitals, never to be seen again. This legacy of gross malpractice goes on and on – from skin grafting experiments in the 1970s in Iglulik to body bags being shipped in lieu of medical supplies to northern Manitoba First Nations during the H1N1 outbreak a decade ago. This is not some distant past. All this happened within living memory.
So no wonder there is vaccine hesitancy. It makes sense given our difficult colonial history.
Nonetheless, there can be no question that vaccines work very well. They are one of the wonders of medical science. Remember Polio? Measles? Smallpox? Me neither – these diseases were effectively eliminated before my time due to vaccines. Chickenpox? I remember it because I got it in kindergarten. But my kids won’t – since 1995 there has been a vaccine for it.
The COVID-19 vaccine seems to be quite effective and safe. In the NWT, it is available to anyone. Yet according to the GNWT the rate of vaccination is starting to slow down, with less uptake among younger people and in some regions. Unless this changes, this means achieving “herd immunity” will take more time than anticipated, and that imposed pandemic restrictions will last even longer.
Given this, it may be tempting for some of us to start pressuring those who are hesitant about the vaccine. Fair enough. But let us remember our history and be gentle on each other.