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Systemic Inequities Increase Covid-19 Risk for Indigenous People in Canada

Challenges Include Barriers to Healthcare, Adequate Housing and Resources

Roxanne Moonias, mother to an infant with a chronic illness, demonstrates one of the steps she takes to ensure her baby is not exposed to contaminants in the water. Roxanne lives in Neskantaga First Nation and says that it takes her an hour each time to properly wash and rinse his bottles.  © 2015 Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch

Across Canada, public health officials are expressing cautious optimism that efforts to contain Covid-19 are proving effective . But Canadians should recognize Indigenous communities are still at risk.

Canada’s record in protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples is abysmal. And it is precisely because of the systemic inequities and discrimination these communities face that Indigenous people may suffer disproportionately from Covid-19.

Federal and provincial governments have urged handwashing and social distancing as Canada’s best defense against the virus. But, as Human Rights Watch has documented, many First Nations communities lack access to clean water and inadequate funding for on-reserve housing has led to severe overcrowding, making social distancing difficult. In urban settings, Indigenous people are also overrepresented in populations at heightened risk of Covid-19: populations experiencing homelessness, prison populations, and people living in poverty.

Indigenous people in Canada also have high rates of underlying health conditions such as diabetes or tuberculosis – diseases associated with poverty or exclusion. According to the World Health Organization, “People ill with both TB and Covid-19 may have poorer treatment outcomes, especially if TB treatment is interrupted.” Patients with diabetes may also be at higher risk from severe illness from Covid-19.

Many Indigenous people also face discrimination in accessing health care services. In remote Northern communities, many nursing stations are ill-equipped and understaffed. Travel to medical centers is expensive and challenging due to current travel restrictions. Some Indigenous communities also do not have access to the personal protective equipment (PPE) they need – and this does not even begin to cover the mental health impact these communities will face moving forward.

Later this year, Human Rights Watch will release a report documenting how climate change is impacting access to food in remote Indigenous communities. Food insecurity may be further exacerbated by the pressures of Covid-19, especially in communities that rely on long-distance deliveries to replenish food stocks.

While the Canadian government has taken steps to address some concerns, deeper reforms are in order.

Authorities should work to dismantle barriers to health care for Indigenous people and ensure supplies such as PPEs are being deployed equitably.

Crucially, the government should involve Indigenous people in creating solutions to address their specific needs, in ways that respect their rights, and end paternalistic approaches that have harmed them. Canada needs to work with Indigenous governments to decrease the impact of this pandemic, and so that Indigenous communities can look forward to healthy futures in which they are resilient to emergencies.

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