"We have been waiting for medical supplies and here all we receive is body bags"

H1N1 prevalence around the world

The news today that the canadian federal government has sent body bags to First Nations in preparation for this fall’s H1N1 hit, is a stark exposition of the fact that the “swine flu,” while expected to be mild in wealthier countries, could devastate many poorer nations.

And those lying maps notwithstanding, “canada” is home (like a jailcell) to many such nations, that Third-World-in-the-First, the nations and lands of Indigenous people, surviving centuries after conquest.

Earlier this year, as thousands of people across Canada were confirmed to have contracted H1N1 (the real numbers probably being in the hundreds of thousands: if you had the flu this summer, chances are you had the swine flu), generally with only mild symptoms (notable exceptions notwithstanding, a parallel, much more ominous, epidemic hit several First Nations, most notably Garden River and St. Theresa’s Point in Manitoba and Sandy Lake First Nation just across the border in Ontario.

At its worst, Indigenous people comprised two thirds of those being kept alive by ventilators in Manitoba, even though they only make up 10% of that province’s population. A consequence of the extreme poverty and overcrowding that exists on some reserves (i.e.only half of homes in Garden River reserve have running water), partly due to outright racism (the government had stalled sending alcohol-based hand sanitizer to affected areas because of fears of drunken Indians) and partly demographics (the virus hits the young hardest, and two thirds of Indigenous people in Manitoba are under 25 years of age, a trend matched amongst Indigenous people across Canada).

After weeks of trying to call attention to the worstening situation, the Assembly of First Nations, the main neocolonial body “representing” Indigenous canada, eventually declared a state of emergency.

This was part of H1N1’s spring-summer hit, which is expected to be dwarfed this fall. This is not because of mutation (which happens all the time with flu viruses, and does not necessarily make them more dangerous), but because the air is significantly more humid in the fall, and this facilitates transmission of flu viruses. It is expected that up to a third of people in North America will become infected, but that in the vast majority of cases the sickness will be relatively mild. The death rate, in a worst case scenario, is still expected to be well under 1% of those become ill.

However, there is little comfort to be had in such class- and nation-neutral statistics, as people live in specific communities with definite features. H1N1 will follow the trajectory of other diseases, flowing around the contours of power and privilege, hitting the oppressed hardest. The serious cases, and deaths, are likely to be concentrated in the Indigenous nations; within the rest of Canada, there are likely to be most concentrated in the most oppressed and marginalized – often heavily immigrant – sections of the working class. Those reassuringly small statitistical chances of serious illness or death will not reflect everyone’s reality.

The health deficit in Indigenous communities is just one dimension of ongoing national oppression and erasure. As was pointed out earlier this year by Margo Greenwood of the National Collaborating Centre on Aboriginal Health, “Their health status is not a product of biological determinants, but of social conditions and access to societal resources.”

Regardless of the subjective intentions of those who work within them, the various neocolonial bodies like the Assembly of First Nations function as a lubricant to facilitate this process. Go-betweens with the oppressor state. Their task is often not an enviable one, as white canada often fails to see the need to include them or give them their due. Indigenous reality is an afterthought – nothing personal, you know. Indeed, the AFN has had to take it upon itself to solicit donations for flu kits for many reserves, the federal government failing to see the point.

To give another example: just the other day First Nations chiefs had to complain, to bring attention to the fact that they were not on the guest list at an international H1N1 preparedness conference, held right in Winnipeg. Can you imagine holding a conference so close the canadian epicenter, and not inviting those who are supposed to be in charge of those most affected? But that’s what happened… business as usual in the “great white north.”

It is in this context that the Health Canada has begun sending body bags to certain Indigenous communities. Perhaps a “mistake”, clearly one that is causing the government some embarassment, because the message it sends is an all too accurate reflection of realities on the ground. To quote the Globe and Mail, “The shipment is another blow to native leaders, who fear they are among the least prepared for another wave of the flu and that the federal government isn’t properly responding to their needs.”

As Garden Hill chief David Harper put it, “This says to me they’ve given up […] We have been waiting for medical supplies and here all we receive is body bags.” Or in the words of one internet blogger, “For once our government was honest with the First Nations. They’d obviously rather see them dead than help them in any sort of effective way.”

There is no crystal-ball-certain way of knowing how the H1N1 pandemic will play itself out. In a few months we may be looking back at a calamity, or at no big deal at all. But what is clear is that in the latter case, it will have been a near miss. The chances of devastation in pockets of North America are there, and to all appearances, the appropriate response is not.

& what, dare i ask, are our movements prepared to do?


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