First Nations communities in B.C. have been successful in keeping COVID-19 numbers very low, the First Nations Health Authority reported Friday.
Between Jan. 1 and June 14, just 87 First Nations people tested positive, out of a total of 5,500 tests. There were four deaths, and there are currently three active cases.
Dr. Shannon McDonald, acting chief medical officer for the First Nations Health Authority, said the low number of cases is due to the stringent measures many First Nation governments took to prevent the spread of the virus.
“Communities have made unnecessary travel very limited and canceled or postponed large gatherings that are central to their way of life,” McDonald said.
“The sacrifices made, some of them very difficult and painful, have paid off.”
Some communities went into strict lockdowns, restricting non-essential travel even for residents. Others have required residents to wear masks.
Indigenous people in B.C. live with the long historical memory of devastating pandemics of diseases like smallpox that swept through North America in the past, and more recently, tuberculosis epidemics that separated people from their home communities.
“We have people alive and well who tell the stories of previous pandemics, of Indian hospitals, of TB,” McDonald said. “Losing people in those circumstances and losing control. That fear response, that internal memory of those things, makes people extremely aware.”
COVID-19 has proved particularly deadly for elderly people, and for Indigenous communities, elders are the holders of language and irreplaceable cultural knowledge, McDonald said.
“Communities are very aware of their importance in community and the need to protect them,” she said.
Many First Nations governments are still acting with caution, even as measures ease. For instance, on June 23 the Heiltsuk First Nation warned that "tourists and visitors are still not permitted in Heiltsuk territory at this time" and asked Heiltsuk members and residents who return from out of town to limit interactions with other "use extreme caution," even though a 14-day self-isolation period is no longer in effect.
The nation has also made masks mandatory in public spaces like the band store.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.'s provincial health officer, said that as British Columbians start to travel around the province as the province moves into Stage 3 of its reopening plan, people need to realize that not all communities are ready to welcome visitors.
"Travel with respect, and understand why some communities aren't ready for visitors," Henry said.
McDonald said that while First Nation communities have had success in keeping the virus at bay, it’s not a time to “lower our guard.”
“Even as the province transitions and begins to reopen, First Nations continue to express concern about having non-residents on their territories and potentially bringing the infection to their communities,” she said.
“We will continue to work with them to prevent that from happening.”