Monday, June 22, 2009

Third World Status Tested

My hat is off to the Winnipeg Free Press for doing such an excellent job covering the outbreak of H1N1 on reserves in Manitoba.

This is a wonderful editorial.

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Third World status tested
By: Don Marks

First Nations leaders have long claimed that living conditions in their communities are just like "Third World countries" but the rest of Canada has never seemed to quite agree.
While aboriginal people decry the amount of foreign aid that is paid to Third World countries in Africa and Asia, Canadians continue to support international relief agencies with donations of money and goods and services -- the kind that doesn't go to Indian reserves. The prevailing attitude is that tax dollars pay for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and many other kinds of support for aboriginal people.

Ironically, it took the outbreak of H1N1 flu to really begin associating the situation of First Nations with Third World status. Now, international organizations like Doctors Without Borders are getting involved.

It is all going to come to a head in about six weeks. That is when pharmaceutical companies expect to complete development of a vaccine against the H1N1 flu. Then they will begin manufacturing millions of doses to immunize the human population but that will take some time. Economic superpowers like the United States, England and Canada have already anted up millions of dollars to buy enormous supplies of the vaccine so that mass immunization of their populations can take place as soon as possible.

Third World countries are already complaining that they may not be able to afford the vaccine, that there won't be enough to go around and that they will have to wait until after supplies of vaccine have been distributed in rich countries before they can get access to the flu shots that will prevent their people from getting H1N1 flu.

What is going to happen to the Third World nations in Canada? We have already recognized that the H1N1 flu spreads more rapidly and seems to have more serious effects in aboriginal communities. This is because, like other Third World countries, many First Nations homes do not have running water, abundant supplies of fresh, clean drinking water are scarce and homes are seriously overcrowded with 12 to 14 people often living in one house, which is often covered in mould. Sanitation and sewage treatment are at a premium. Citizens already suffer from respiratory illnesses at a higher rate and the general conditions of poverty exacerbate the spread of flu.

There has been some scrambling to respond to the current crisis wherein H1N1 has struck disproportionately and more seriously in First Nations than elsewhere. For example, more doctors and nurses are going into First Nations. But Garden Hill had to spend $15,000, which was supposed to be used for graduation ceremonies, on surgical masks and other medical supplies.

First Nations are so far behind that three chiefs from the Island Lake area (population 10,000) travelled to Ottawa to lobby for a temporary field hospital while pointing out that Neepawa (pop. 3,800) is already served by a permanent hospital with 38 beds.

Garden Hill Chief David Harper also took pains to reinforce the Third World theme by pointing out that Canada spent $425 million to help rebuild foreign countries after the tsunami in 2004 but is ignoring the pleas from reserves for improved housing and infrastructure. Will our priorities change now that the flu crisis has turned Canada's First Nations into actual Third World countries?

The distribution of vaccines is really going to tell us a lot about whether or not our perception of First Nations really has changed. Like other developing countries, First Nations cannot afford the vaccines. They fear they may have to wait until the rich people are immunized before they get their flu shots, if there are any left.

Current estimates are that one out of every two Manitobans will acquire the H1N1 flu (a frighteningly high figure but one that could be skewed because it could be that nine out of 10 aboriginal citizens catch this flu while one out of five citizens from the rest of the population comes down with it)Common sense tells us that First Nations should be the No. 1 priority when it comes to distributing the H1N1 flu vaccine. But history tells us that First Nations have always been last in line for just about everything. Despite the fact we all know that First Nations require immunization much more greatly than any other population, will the Canadian government and medical authorities respond in kind?

Complicating all this is a debate taking place between traditional Indian medical healers who claim the vaccine will "make our people sick" and do more harm than good. First Nations leaders will have to resolve this debate quickly and then begin lobbying for mass immunization on a priority basis immediately if that is what they choose to do.

Don Marks is a freelance writer and editor of Grassroots News.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 21, 2009 A15

Other posts on this topic:
June 10: No Doctors, No Nurses, but emergency hand sanitizer is on its way
June 6: If it isn't racism, what is it?
June 5: Feds slow to respond to First Nation pandemic planning: Manitoba
June 4: Another update H1N1
June 3:More on H1N1 at St. Theresa Point First Nation
June 2: Please follow this story. Please write to your MP


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