My people have always had a great fear of new diseases and illnesses.
Many Elders have stories from First Nations in the north along the James Bay coast of outbreaks of measles, polio, tuberculosis and other diseases from which no one was protected. In my home community of Attawapiskat there was a dark period in the 40s or 50s when an outbreak of disease affected the community. This was a legendary period that many Elders including my parents often recounted. My dad Marius remembered one time where scores of funerals were held regularly throughout the year. Deaths happened so frequently and so quickly that people were buried two per plot at times.
My mother Susan and her family spent part of the year in the community and the rest of the time in Nawashi River with her family further north closer to Hudson Bay. Even though she and her family were very much isolated in such a remote traditional setting somehow my mom’s aunt Mary Paulmartin contracted polio. Mary spent most of her life in a wheelchair as a result of polio. It is important to realize that we no longer know anyone affected by this terrible disease because a fellow named Jonas Salk discovered a vaccine for polio in 1955 and polio was eradicated. Other diseases that killed and maimed people but thankfully were eradicated by vaccines include tetanus, influenza, hepatitis B and A, rubella, measles, whooping cough (pertussis), chicken pox, diphtheria and mumps. Please remember and be thankful for the science that created all these vaccines so that our family members, friends, neighbours and even ourselves did not have to die or become disabled due to these diseases.
During the last pandemic of 2009, Native statistics of infections were disproportionately higher than the rest of the population. Disease outbreaks affect us as Indigenous people to a great extent because many of my people are living in substandard living conditions in remote isolated places. The combination of people living in crowded conditions with a chronic lack of medical services and medical professionals has meant we are more at risk. During this current Covid19 pandemic, my home community of Attawapiskat has had to deal with some cases recently and health professionals like my sister in law Christine Rose and our leadership and health professionals are doing their best to make sure people understand that vaccines are a good idea. However there are elements that question vaccines and that could result in a dangerous situation for my family and friends back home.
In the past, one of our greatest fears of new diseases was a lack of information. Today the constant never ending stream of news stories, reports, videos, and documentaries about what this disease is, what it might be, what its not, where it came from and what it will do, is feeding into our worries and deepest fears. Officially verifiable and recognized news organizations were once the only places for information but now news of any kind and with little fact based proof can be spread by anyone on social media. Right wing and extreme fundamental movements are spreading conspiracy theories. It’s important that we put our trust in the medical organizations, epidemiologists, virologists and scientists. Your uncle, aunt or friend on Facebook should not be the ones you turn to for fact based knowledge on viruses and vaccines. False rumours and conspiracy theories are not going to keep you and your family safe.
New vaccines for Covid19 are providing hope that we can effectively deal with this pandemic. There are several that have been released in record time to keep people from dying and getting very sick or spreading this virus. Many more vaccines are currently being worked on. It is true that as things evolve with Covid19 and many new variants occur, scientists will have to tweak the current vaccines and may have to develop new ones over time. Still the best bet to help us manage this dangerous virus is in getting the vaccine to as many people as fast as possible.
I often think of my grand aunt Mary who ended up in a wheelchair for most of her life. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if she had been lucky enough to get the polio vaccine before she was stricken with the disease. In the spirit of her strong memory I urge you all to trust in the science and get the vaccines as soon as you possibly can. Stay safe and well.