Instead of focusing on fines and snitch lines, governments should make more room in their pandemic response for collective, grassroots help for individuals and families who’ve contracted COVID-19, researchers say.
A team from the University of Manitoba suggests officials look to Indigenous communities for some answers about how to move beyond enforcement of public-health order violations.
Despite having some of the strictest lockdown measures, including checkpoints that require residents to show identification and obtain permission to travel off reserve, many First Nations communities have been able to harness community support to deliver care packages, meats and traditional medicines to families who are in isolation, the team says.
Stéphane McLachlan, a professor focusing on environmental health, and Myrle Ballard, an assistant professor and Indigenous scholar, received a federal grant to study how Indigenous communities are responding to the pandemic. They’re working with Evan Chamakese of Pelican Lake First Nation in northern Saskatchewan, who said despite many band councils’ strict orders, communities following their sacred teachings have been able to work together, taking a more compassionate approach.
"From what I’ve seen," he said, "It’s not so much about the shaming or trying to place blame on people for bringing in this virus to the community, but it’s more of looking out for one another and taking care of (each other) because we’re all related."
In small, tight-knit communities, people are likely to know who is sick and in isolation. Ballard said infection rates on First Nations would likely be a lot lower if residents didn’t have to travel to surrounding towns and urban centres to access essential goods and services.
"It’s not our nature to be naming and pointing fingers amongst each other, but they know who the people are and the people at the health centres monitor the people (who’ve tested positive)," she said.
Some of the lockdown measures she’s observed are uncomfortably similar to Indian Act enforcement practices such as the pass system, but this time it’s part of First Nations’ self-directed efforts to stop the virus from spreading.
"It’s kind of ironic that the First Nations are doing that to their own people, but I guess it has to be done at this point, during this time," Ballard said.
Enforcement of public health orders among racialized and vulnerable groups often leads to more inequity, McLachlan said. He said he wants to look at building a response model "that’s gentler, that’s kinder, and ultimately that’s more effective — and doesn’t deny science."
"We need to make space for that third approach. It’s not just about the data and the science, it’s not about the snitch lines and the punishments in governments and police, but it’s about building space and resources in communities for support. I would say that First Nations represent a great model for doing that because they’ve done that so effectively with respect to COVID-19," McLachlan said.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.