Governments need to get their acts together before Indigenous communities in northern Saskatchewan experience a serious COVID-19 outbreak.
This new development also places northern Saskatchewan as a unique phenomenon among northern regions in Western Canada; thus, the policy response will have to be different.
According to the Saskatchewan Health Authority, from April 15 to May 15, confirmed cases of COVID-19 in northern Saskatchewan increased by a whopping 82.8 percent. The region went from 58 to 106 cases.
Now get this. In the far north of the province, confirmed cases increased by over 3000 percent, going from seven to 218 cases at the time of the release. Though it has not been confirmed there may be more cases than this and the number is growing.
Reports from CTV News show much of the outbreak emerged in the northern community of Laloche, where 160 contracted the virus. The nearby Clearwater Dene First Nation had 21 cases and is growing. Two Indigenous elders had died in a senior’s home.
Northern Saskatchewan could be in for a tidal wave. However, northern Alberta and Manitoba both seem to have been spared. This, so far, is a uniquely northern Saskatchewan tragedy.
In Manitoba, the health authority there reports that thus far cases have been overwhelmingly dominated by the Winnipeg region. Manitoba has been presenting its COVID-19 data by regional health authorities and so far, the northern and Interlake regions have been reporting exceptionally low numbers. This likely may be due to the number of fly-in and very remote communities in northern Manitoba, which seriously limits travel to and from the region. In this case, real isolation may have spared its residents the threat of outbreak.
In Alberta, provincial health authorities have divided up the province into various zones. Thus far, as can be expected, the vast number of cases are in the Calgary zone, and the second-highest in the southern zone. This is where larger centres such as Lethbridge and Medicine Hat are located. The north zone had 235 cases, as of May 24. This is the second-lowest number of cases as the central zone had 99 cases. However, this compares to 523 in the Edmonton zone alone.
So far, the federal government has been focusing on ensuring that vulnerable regions have access to personal protective equipment (PPE). According to the CTV news story above, the federal government has sent 129 PPE shipments to Indigenous communities in Saskatchewan, with 59 shipments to northern Saskatchewan reserves alone.
Thus, Indigenous Services Canada – in its response to Indigenous communities in northern regions of the West – needs to tailor its policy response to the distribution of First Nation populations in these areas. Not all northern regions are created equal. Some are much more isolated than main urban centres where infection is highest. In this situation, it seems the most isolated the better in terms of risk of exposure. But, because of the significant risk that all Indigenous communities present in the face of infectious spread, this isolation needs to be protected at all costs. To reiterate, early decisions by many Indigenous communities to shut their “borders” may have been the best move they could have made.
In the case of northern Saskatchewan, Indigenous Services Canada and health authorities in Saskatchewan need to devote significant resources. This means PPE, all sorts of health equipment, and especially medical personnel. Indigenous authorities need to shut down access to all their reserve lands immediately.
There is still time for governments and First Nation authorities to avoid the worst case scenario of a general Indigenous outbreak. This is not specifically a matter of how much money to send to communities, but to know where to target it and to adopt a regionally oriented policy response.