Pandemic deterioration of public services on display


This week, a state of emergency was declared due to a staffing shortage at the Winnipeg Police Service.

In the first week of 2022, 9% of all police officers were on COVID-related leave. This meant gang and community service unit officers were redeployed and WPS leader Danny Smyth publicly considered cutting daily shifts from three to two.

There’s nothing to panic about – but it does require nonprofits, groups like the Bear Clan and Mama Bear Clan, and volunteers to take on a bit more of the burden of keeping our communities safe.

This has been the state of health care for nearly two years, with thousands of surgeries and procedures canceled or postponed and services rerouted or sent out of province. Caring for those who needed medical help fell into the hands of friends or family.

Police and health care aren’t the only services that have been challenged recently. The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service has announced that 5% of its staff are absent due to COVID-related illnesses.

We are in the full-scale deterioration of public services stage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Or, welcome to a little taste of what it’s like to live on a First Nation.

Just be happy you can still drink tap water here.

Along the same lines, the past week also saw a remarkable and historic agreement to right the wrongs and rectify the situation of First Nations child welfare. After nearly a decade and a half of legal struggles, hundreds of thousands of First Nations children who have been forced into the child welfare system due to a lack of basic infrastructure and services — a situation created by the impoverishment of aboriginal families and communities in Canada — will be compensated by $20 billion.

An additional $20 billion will be allocated to rectify the situation and provide Indigenous families with adequate health and family support systems – or what Canadians are going through.

When lawyer Cindy Blackstock and the Assembly of First Nations filed the first complaint about it in 2007, compensation and new infrastructure would likely have cost a few hundred million.

Due to consecutive federal governments challenging this claim in court, it now stands at $40 billion.

When basic, functional and well-funded public services are not available, children and families suffer the most.

Think about it this week as the provincial government considers sending our children back to school on Monday, January 17.

Consider that too as nearly a dozen First Nations in Manitoba enter another round of community shutdowns as they battle COVID-19 outbreaks.

As said many times in this column, the lack of basic infrastructure and poverty created by the Indian Act creates a perfect storm for COVID-19 outbreaks.

A recent study by two of my colleagues at the University of Manitoba showed that infection rates among Manitoba First Nations are up to 10 times higher than provincial rates.

The Omicron variant proves it more than ever. This week, more than half of Manitoba’s 63 First Nations reported a spike in positive cases, including 10 in various states of lockdown, travel restrictions or states of emergency.

The true number of positive cases on First Nations — like everywhere else — is impossible to know due to testing delays and the lack of availability of rapid tests.

But, outbreaks are evident, occurring even in communities that have had virtually no cases throughout the pandemic, such as the Manto Sipi Cree Nation which reports 64 positive cases, or nearly 10% of the community.

In the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, 80 homes are in isolation, or one-third of the community.

In Pimicikamak, the nursing station lost nearly two-thirds of its staff.

In most communities, basic services like police, fire, paramedics, and health services aren’t available, so volunteers (or what we affectionately call “aunts” or “uncles”) do this work.

Would you be willing to patrol your neighborhood to protect your community?

Would you help put out a fire or drive someone hundreds of miles to a hospital?

Would you agree to enter the home of an infected person to administer medication?

This happens every day among First Nations. And hardly anyone gets paid.

With vaccination, the chances of being hospitalized with COVID-19 are greatly reduced. Unfortunately, with 18% of Manitobans refusing to get vaccinated, the chances of our health care system being overwhelmed with serious cases are growing.

In fact, we are already seeing the deterioration of services – a reality that will require us all to resume the work of keeping our communities safe, secure and healthy.

The coming months could see us all doing a little more for our neighbors, our friends or becoming someone’s new aunt or uncle.

Then, when we emerge from this pandemic, we will have to take the chronic racism that puts certain communities at risk seriously or face the reality of paying for it with billions of dollars later.

Or, cost our lives.

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Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and a columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press.