Canada’s answer to flu: body bags
When swine flu threatened to strike native North American communities in Canada for a second time, tribal leaders appealed to the government for help. They were hoping for medicine and doctors. The government sent them body bags.
Grand Chief David Harper represents 30 northern Manitoba native American communities, known in Canada as First Nations people. He told RNW that when he asked the government for support he was hoping for more than just hand sanitizers and facemasks. And body bags were definitely not what he had in mind.
“Not at all. This was never even in the discussion. That was a total insult to our communities, that when we ask for help, what we get is body bags. There’s a clear message here that this is what you’re going to be getting, you’re on your own. We’ve been asking for supplies for the longest time. We’ve asked for doctors and nurses, and instead you get body bags.”
Earlier this year the H1N1 virus wreaked havoc among First Nations communities. Schools in remote parts of Manitoba were closed and the community spent nearly a million dollars flying people into urban hospitals, Chief Harper said. Yet on a government priority list for vaccinations, First Nations people don’t even get a mention.
Like native communities across North America, many Canadian First Nations people live on impoverished reserves. Chief Harper says the conditions of life in remote Manitoba communities make them vulnerable to flu outbreaks.
“Not all of our communities have running water. No electrical heat – there’s basically woodstoves. Overcrowding is a big thing. We know of families of 29 people in a two-bedroom house.”
It’s no surprise then that the communities should have been hit hard by the flu pandemic. Chief Harper said government officials don’t understand the difficulties such living conditions create for people struggling to keep the flu at bay.
“We have no running water, and here we are being told wash your hands, wash your clothes, but when you have to go to the lake to get a pail of water, it’s extremely difficult.”
Chief Harper’s own town has no permanent doctor and just two full-time nurses for four thousand people. So when local people once again began going down with the flu, Chief Harper and his fellow leaders asked for medication, doctors and a field hospital. The government’s response was not exactly encouraging.
“We’ve been asking that we get some more nursing programmes, some more doctors to be made available – until this day, the only thing we got is body bags. If at least medication could have been sent ahead of time, then we could understand that, but when body bags came in first priority, to combat this H1N1, that’s the totally wrong message."
Canadian Federal Health Minister Leona Aqlukkaq has ordered an investigation into the decision to send body bags to Manitoba reserves. Aqlukkaq said she found the action by Health Canada "insensitive and offensive."
Photo: Flickr under Creative Commons Licence
An indigenous community living in isolation in an Amazon jungle region within Venezuela is reported to have been infected with swine flu.
Survival International which champions the interests of indigenous peoples, says seven members of the Yanomami tribe have already died of the flu. About 1000 are reported to be infected with the A(H1N1) virus responsible for the disease (known as Mexican flu in the Netherlands).
The Venezuelan government has deployed medical teams to the area but it is feared many more Yanomami will become infected and die. Their isolation means they have little resistance to viruses coming from outside their community.
In the 1980s, many members of the tribe died after contracting flu or malaria. The diseases were brought to the jungle community by people prospecting for gold. About 32,000 Yanomami live in the border area between Venezuela and Brazil.
Yanomami women (Survival International)