Over 10 years ago, sanitizer was withheld from flu-ravaged reserves

By Chezney Martin, with notes from The Globe and Mail

Days after dozens of indigenous people of Manitoba fell severely ill with swine flu, Health Canada hesitated in sending desperately needed hand sanitizer, a substance commonly used today during the Covid-19 outbreak as a staple health precaution, to indigenous reserves because of concerns that the people would ingest the alcohol-based gel to get drunk.

Many indigenous leaders said that the governments $1-billion national pandemic response to H1N1 outbreak on reserves failed them.

Kim Barker, public health adviser for the Assembly of First Nations at the time, told the Senate committee on indigenous people that she was “devastated” when she heard that health officials were spending precious time debating on sending hand sanitizer – which can contain up to 70-per-cent alcohol – to the communities.

A senior health official confirmed to the committee that chiefs and public-health officials debated the sanitizer issue at length. The assistant deputy minister of Health Canada’s First Nations and Inuit Health Branch said that the occurrence was “rare.”

Nearing the summer months, the mild flu outbreak erupted into a full-blown crisis on several of Manitoba’s remote fly-in reserves. Today, dozens of Indigenous communities, already grappling with overcrowding and poor healthcare facilities, closed their land borders to limit exposure to the novel coronavirus.

But in 2009, dozens of the flu-stricken indigenous residents had to be flown from a collection of towns in the Island Lake region, which is 600 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. Two-thirds of all flu victims on respirators in the province were indigenous at one point in time.

Even as conditions worsened, chiefs in the region complained that the federal government had not delivered flu masks, respirators and hand sanitizer – items it is obliged to supply in accordance with the Canadian Pandemic Influenza Plan.

One Manitoba chief, David Harper of Garden Hill First Nation, became so frustrated waiting for federal flu-fighting supplies he flew to Winnipeg to buy them himself. The federal government eventually delivered 2,500 bottles of alcohol-based hand sanitizer to his dry reserve, but only after Mr. Harper waited 21/2 weeks and travelled to Ottawa to plead with health officials.

He questioned that if alcoholism was such a legitimate issue to the organization, why did they still send alcohol based sanitizer and not an alternative. Although not as effective as alcohol based sanitizer, Purell and Germ-X were selling alcohol-free hand sanitizers alongside their alcohol-containing products. The sentiment remained that the entire shipment of the sanitizer was out on hold because a small portion of risk, in comparison to the havoc wreaked.

Today, such a shipment halt by the government would be deemed preposterous.

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