As countries move into the recovery stage, how will Indigenous rights be protected post-COVID?
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted stark disparities among the most vulnerable and at-risk demographics around the globe. Far from being an equaliser, the virus has demonstrated how a denial of rights has disadvantaged some groups over others, including low-income communities and people of colour. As governments begin to move into the recovery stage of the virus, how will they ensure the protection of human rights for the most vulnerable in a post-COVID era?
In the UK, the unequal racial impact of the virus drew public attention when it was reported that the first 11 doctors to die from COVID-19 were from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. This news prompted a review by the NHS and Public Health England of the impact of COVID-19 on BAME individuals, with conclusive findings still to come (Kirby, 2020). In the United States, a similar trend is visible for African Americans, due in part to pre-existing chronic conditions and social determinants of health: in many cases, ethnic minorities live in more densely populated areas, work lower-paid service jobs and use public transit more frequently, thereby placing themselves at greater risk of exposure to the virus (Kirby, 2020).
The case is no different for Indigenous populations in settler-colonial states such as Australia and Canada. According to Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr Teresa Tam, First Nations, Inuit and Métis (the three categories of Indigenous peoples in Canada) “are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19 due to distances, access to necessary resources and underlying health conditions” (Black, 2020). The most recent numbers from Indigenous Services Canada report 255 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among Indigenous peoples living on reserves, but these numbers do not account for those living off reserves. It is also critical to note that Indigenous peoples make up only approximately five percent of the population of Canada (Government of Canada, 2018).
In addition to the high number of fatalities, the pandemic has highlighted significant lasting economic and mental health implications for Indigenous communities resulting from long-standing structural inequalities against First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. The legacy of oppressive colonial practices and policies has sustained an unequal application of basic rights for Indigenous peoples by the Canadian government, such as the right to safe and affordable housing and a basic standard of living (Kirby, 2020). In Canada, every single case of COVID-19 in Indigenous communities has been a cause for concern, due to limited accessible hospitals and healthcare facilities, unstable and overcrowded housing—which has posed challenges to self-isolation—poverty, and inadequate clean water on First Nations reserves (Black, 2020).
These factors have produced severe health conditions over generations; according to figures from the Government of Canada, Indigenous populations have lower life expectancies than non-Indigenous Canadians and report disproportionate rates of asthma, active tuberculosis, diabetes and obesity (2018). These very health conditions are now directly responsible for Indigenous communities being more at risk of becoming severely ill upon contracting the virus (Medical News Today, 2020). More than access to health facilities, access to information about virus preventative measures for Indigenous communities has also been severely lacking, thus also leaving them more vulnerable to the virus. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations highlights that critical public messaging by governments and health authorities may be lost on Indigenous communities who do not have full command of the national language, such as English or French in Canada (2020). The challenge here is two-fold: existing inequalities have produced the conditions for the virus to pose a disproportionate risk to Indigenous peoples, and have resulted in limited access to treatment and basic healthcare facilities once the virus has been contracted.
Western leaders have spoken repeatedly about the need for proper sanitation and hygiene during the pandemic, yet in remote Indigenous communities in Canada, basic cleaning supplies are priced three times higher than in urban centres. The same goes for simple produce (Seymour, 2020), highlighting disparities in the right to food, which was a cause for concern at the start of the pandemic during periods of early panic-buying (Lufkin, 2020). While cities and rural communities alike were tasked with managing the impact of the virus on supply chains, Indigenous peoples in remote areas continued to face exorbitant prices for basic necessities. Although the Canadian government has outlined significant relief measures for the agriculture sector during the pandemic (Ng & Prusinkiewicz, 2020) such support should ensure that this food is affordable in remote communities post-COVID.
The situation in Canada is better, however, as compared with countries such as Brazil, which reported more than 980 cases among its Indigenous population at the end of May. These communities also face difficulties in accessing health services and suffer precarious living conditions (Darlington et al, 2020). They must also contend with a president with whom they are at odds and who has taken the coronavirus outbreak far too lightly. This juxtaposition is not to portray the situation of Indigenous peoples in Canada as significantly better—far from it. Rather, it is necessary to account for the ways in which colonial legacies have placed Indigenous populations in precarious circumstances, which necessitate government responses that are sensitive to specific Indigenous needs and include Indigenous leadership at the decision-making table. To do otherwise would be to fail Indigenous wellbeing and livelihoods yet again.
On 24 March, the Assembly of First Nations declared a national state of emergency, calling for swift and effective federal support. Days later the Canadian government responded with a relief package of $305 million, followed by additional financial support for Indigenous women and children in Canada’s northern communities (Black, 2020). Along with federal relief, provinces like British Columbia have stepped in, providing medical transportation and a “virtual doctor program” (Seymour, 2020). Whilst this government support is a notable and welcome move, it does not sufficiently address wider inequalities that are certain to persist beyond the pandemic.
It is critical that Indigenous concerns are at the centre of Canada’s recovery plan over the months and years to follow. This means tackling the need for safe and affordable housing, ensuring First Nations reserves and remote communities have sufficient healthcare facilities, and guaranteeing clean drinking water for all. Canada should also implement a long-term strategy to tackle the mental health implications of the pandemic, specifically in remote communities where isolation has only been exacerbated as a result of physical distancing measures (Seymour, 2020). This is critical when considering disproportionate rates of mental illness and suicide mortality amongst Indigenous peoples across age groups, specifically those in remote Northern areas (Government of Canada, 2018). First Nations and Inuit chiefs have expressed their concern over the lasting mental health impacts of the pandemic, specifically in light of recent suicides by Indigenous youths on reserves during the pandemic (Wright, 2020). Although the federal government has implemented a crisis helpline, it must ensure that these services are not short-lived and are expanded in the months and years to come, as local communities work to recover from the virus’ social, health and economic effects.
Despite the small victories during the pandemic, provincial and federal leaders must do more than funnel money into Indigenous communities as a short-term measure. Although they have been largely responsive to Indigenous needs recently, the economic, health and social welfare of Indigenous peoples must be central to any long-term strategy the government takes up. As Chief Bellegarde notes, these measures must be community-led and should ensure that Canada’s structural racism against Indigenous peoples, which led to their precarious circumstances during this pandemic, do not produce further long-term harms. Canada’s leaders should adopt a culturally appropriate and community-orientated lens of care, placing Indigenous rights at the foundation of a federal recovery plan.
COVID-19 has been far more than a health crisis; it has unmasked the foundational social and economic inequalities in countries across the globe. This crisis will not be over once a vaccine is developed and widely distributed. Instead, it will take a commitment by governments to guarantee equal rights to all, and in Canada, as in other settler-colonial states, this starts by redressing the harm done to Indigenous peoples.
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