No option off the table as Indigenous communities step up prevention efforts
SUDBURY -- No solution appears to be completely off the table for Indigenous communities in Northern Ontario as they continue to look at ways to protect their communities from the spread of COVID-19.
"We're really concerned about our small community, we're definitely a high-risk population with low capacity to respond and we recognize that so we made the decision to close the border basically. We shut down the road that allows people into the community," said Chief Valerie Richer. "We had smaller signs but they weren't working so we have a big electronic sign, we have two people that are there and telling people."
Richer believes much of the traffic they're seeing are people trying to get to the tobacco stores so people have been on-hand directing vehicles, following all of the necessary safety precautions.
"There's 100 new cases today (in Ontario) so now is not the time to be visiting. It's the time, and all the medical professionals are telling us, it's the time to stay home," she explained.
The chief says it was a difficult decision to make but adds it was the right one to protect her entire community citing recent studies that show Indigenous communities are at a higher risk.
"Most of our people in Atikameksheng specifically die before reaching retirement age of 65 and so we are an at-risk population and we know that from our own experiences and studies that confirm that so we need to protect our people as much as possible," said Richer.
She remains hopeful about some of the supports coming out of the provincial and federal governments. Her message to everyone right now, follow the precautions from health officials.
"Our community needs help, like a lot of communities, we're out of supplies. I know we don't have any N95 masks for sure for our community and we trying desperately to find those items right now and so we're hoping that this funding will not only help with the money but in finding those things that we so desperately need," she said. "We're also concerned about our neighbours in Sudbury and whether the Sudbury hospital has enough ventilators to respond to the crisis that we know is coming."
The decision to close is something that Wahnapitae First Nation has already made. No outside traffic is coming in right now at all.
"It's very tough because it's a time you want to help everybody but you can't physically help them," said Chief Larry Roque.
"It's just about stay home and social distance. They're putting out the message all the time and people have to adhere to it and then this virus, we'll be done with it but it's so hard. It's a tough choice that we have to make because we love having people come out here," he explained.
Nipissing First Nation Chief Scott McLeod says closing their border will be a little tough considering the Trans-Canada cuts right through their territory.
His hat is off however to all of the businesses who decided to close ahead of being deemed essential or non-essential. He says they are looking at every feasible option that is available to them.
They're also encouraging residents to physically isolate and take precautions.
"We're coping with it and making sure our vulnerable members, those that are elderly or who have pre-existing health issues, that they're taken care of and really stressing the importance of self-isolation and social distancing and all of the things that are being recommended by health organizations," he said.
McLeod says the situation can vary from First Nation to First Nation but they're rolling with it just like everyone else is. He adds they're fortunate to be between two larger centres (North Bay and West Nipissing) that have the medical supports available.
"As things change from day-to-day, so do our options and what we need to do, we discuss those daily and while this may be the current course of action that we're taking, things change and we have to look at adjusting," said McLeod.
Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde has declared a state of emergency. He's calling on all prevention efforts and preparation for critical care to be stepped up.