Indigenous Communities are more susceptible to COVID-19
Indigenous communities are more susceptible to COVID-19
Accurate (supported by evidence and facts; acceptable margin of error)
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted significant health and societal challenges. In a series of fact-checks, we explore some of the pandemic-related challenges facing Indigenous communities in Canada.
A CBC news article dated August 26, 2020, stated that Indigenous communities were more susceptible to pandemics, particularly COVID-19. This statement is accurate.
In the article, CBC states that according to health experts, this vulnerability of First Nations living on reserve and Inuit living on their territory is due to precarious conditions such as lack of infrastructure, housing and water, as well as other essential services. As a result, these communities’ health outcomes are lower than those of the general Canadian population.
The Health Agency of Canada points out that people vulnerable to COVID-19 are the elderly, people with pre-existing health conditions (such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, cancer, etc.), people with weakened immune systems, as well as people living in low socio-economic situations and without access to the necessary infrastructure and services. In Canada, Indigenous communities fit this description in many ways. This justifies our verdict. The details follow.
Prior to COVID-19, Indigenous communities were already facing health and other challenges that became exacerbated by the arrival of COVID-19.
Existing health conditions
According to Statistics Canada, First Nations people have more chronic health problems such as diabetes, cancer and chronic respiratory diseases than the non-indigenous population. Among First Nations adults aged 50 and over living off-reserve, 36% reported having high blood pressure and 20% reported diabetes. In comparison, 33% of all Canadians aged 50 years and older reported having hypertension and 14% reported having diabetes.
In addition, hospitalizations for asthma and respiratory tract infections are more common among First Nations people living on reserve than among other Canadians. These health problems can lead to complications for people with COVID-19.
Unsuitable health structures on reserves
The H1N1 crisis in 2009 revealed the weaknesses and inequalities in the health systems for First Nations. Today, with COVID-19, the health care needs of First Nations on reserve are still unmet.
According to the latest census (2016), there are nearly 1.7 million Indigenous people in Canada. Most First Nations live in remote areas far from health facilities. On reserve, only primary health care clinics (primary centers) are available. People who are seriously ill usually must travel long distances to access secondary tertiary centers, resulting in considerable delay in getting appropriate care.
The First Nations Regional Health Survey 2015/2016 of the First Nations Information Governance Centre found that 1 in 10 (9.6%) First Nations people living on reserve reported having had unmet health needs in the previous 12 months.
Water, essential in times of pandemic
To prevent the spread of the virus, health authorities recommend washing your hands for at least 20 seconds. However, access to safe drinking water is difficult on reserves. According to the National Assessment of Water and Wastewater Systems in First Nations Communities, 39% of water systems on First Nations reserves had a high overall risk and 34% had a medium overall risk. This means that 73% of on reserve water systems have the potential to pose a risk. Boil water advisories are common.
By wanting to wash their hands to limit the spread of COVID-19, First Nations communities are therefore exposed to other diseases such as gastrointestinal illnesses, skin conditions (eczema and skin cancer) and birth defects. Communities without safe water systems cannot always comply with the measures recommended by Health Canada. First Nations are therefore at risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19. Health Canada does recommend that people living in communities under boil water advisories still wash their hand with soap and water to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Lack of housing
Another Public Health Agency of Canada measure to combat COVID-19 is isolation. People are asked to isolate themselves at home when they have symptoms or think they have been in contact with the virus. However, on remote reserves, especially in northern communities, housing is a recurring problem. Statistics Canada estimates that close to 37% of First Nations people on reserve live in inadequate housing. In Inuit Nunangat, close to 52% of Inuit live in housing deemed unsuitable. In comparison, only 8.5% of the non-indigenous population lives in housing deemed inadequate.
Due to the lack of housing in Indigenous communities, First Nations are also forced to live in multi-generational homes. In 2016, more than 25% of First Nations people living on reserve and 23.5% of Inuit in Inuit Nunangat lived in multigenerational homes, compared to 6.1% for the non-indigenous population. These situations put older Indigenous people at risk for COVID-19 and increase the risk of spreading the virus in already vulnerable communities.
What Indigenous communities and the Government of Canada are doing
In addition to promoting government's health measures against COVID-19, several First Nations have put in place emergency measures such as travel restrictions on certain reserves, curfews and fines for those who do not respect them.
For its part, the Government of Canada, through Indigenous Services Canada, has funded programs in collaboration with community representatives, has put in place announcements in different languages and resources to fight against COVID-19 in indigenous communities.
Despite these measures, and potentially because of the relaxation of some of them, as of 9 October 2020 there is an alarming uptick of COVID-19 cases in Indigenous communities across Canada.
Photo credit: March 13, 2020, Valerie Gideon (Senior Assistant Deputy Minister for First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, Indigenous Services Canada) and Dr. Tom Wong (Executive Director and Chief Medical Officer of Public Health, Indigenous Services Canada) provided an update on what Indigenous Services Canada is doing to support Indigenous peoples across Canada with respect to the COVID-19 response.
National Collaboration Center for Indigenous Health
Public Health Canada
First Nations Information Governance Centre, National Report of the First Nations Regional Health Survey Phase 3: Volume Two, (Ottawa: 2018). Published in July 2018
Indigenous Services Canada
National Center of Biotechnology Information
Indigenous communities are more susceptible to COVID-19
October 09, 2020
Learn more about our fact-checking methodology HERE.