There's a high level of anxiety in Kashechewan, says Mushkegowuk Council’s manager of emergency services Wilbert Wesley.
In the past few weeks, the remote northern community on the James Bay coast has been overwhelmed with the surging cases of COVID-19.
As of today (Monday, June 14), there are 262 known active cases in the James Bay region — 216 cases in Kashechewan, 11 in Attawapiskat, 15 in Fort Albany, three in Moose Factory and 17 in Moosonee. There were also 27 resolved cases in the region.
Kashechewan Chief Leo Friday said 16 people with serious COVID-19 cases have been medevacked to Kingston, including a 12-year-old girl and elders who have never been vaccinated.
There is a 24-hour curfew in the community until at least June 26.
“We’re a little tired with all the conference calls the whole day and working overtime and updating people at the same time. It’s a lot of work but we manage,” Friday said.
He couldn't say how many cases in the community have screened positive for the variant of concern.
Mushkegowuk Council is working with various organizations and donation partners like Red Cross to deliver general aid like food, water and personal protection equipment to the community.
"There's a high level of anxiety. When your community has an outbreak, that would be a mental health concern and as we're seeing," Wesley said. "But our partners in Mushkegowuk are working diligently in the mental health department to bring those needs into Kash and to provide for those that need it urgently."
The community's Northern Store continues to take orders and ship them to households, Wesley said.
"We're in this all together and we'll get out of it all together. We're working diligently and hard behind the scenes to ensure Kash gets what it needs during these unprecedented times," he said.
There are about 200 people who don’t have a house in the community that has been facing housing and overcrowding issues for years, Friday said. Families are isolating in one home, sometimes with up to 20 people in one house, according to the chief.
He said the community, which has over 1,800 members, submitted several proposals to the government to build more units, to repair mouldy houses and submitted a proposal under the Rapid Housing Initiative for its elders but nothing was approved.
“We submitted plans to them thinking we’ll get answers every year but it’s not happening,” the chief said. “That’s why we’re in a dilemma right now.”
This week, the community is going to put up 50 tents on the high school grounds to alleviate the overcrowding issue and house people in need of isolation, the chief said.
Minister Marc Miller issued a statement Sunday outlining the help the government provided to the community. On top of the 15 Canadian Rangers who have been mobilized to Kashechewan, six additional nurses were deployed for a total of 15 nurses in the community.
There is a 24-hour nursing station. There are three Indigenous Services Canada paramedics, two physicians in the community and 10 surge capacity nurses conducting remote contact and case management, according to Miller.
The community has requested an additional $453,000 that will come through the Indigenous Community Support Fund and Public Health Measures Fund bringing the community’s total COVID-19 response funding to more than $8 million.
“I commend Chief Leo Friday of Kashechewan First Nation who has done an incredible job preparing for and responding to the COVID-19 outbreak in his community,” Miller said in a statement.
Friday said he talked to Miller who promised to work on a long-term solution by providing the lot development and housing in near future.
“He said he’s going to try and cut all the red tape to make it happen faster. But I don’t know how true that is and just waiting for another confirmation to let my people know,” Friday said.
The community is supposed to get a hospital from the province but the project keeps being delayed because it’s “difficult to build something in the community where there’s floods all the time,” the chief said.
“Even the insurance company people are saying, ‘We can’t insure your houses because you’re in the flood zones.’ And when they do insure something in the house, it’s really expensive,” Friday said.
Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus is working with the Mennonite Central Committee to airlift emergency supplies to the coast. A donation fund has been set up to provide help to the James Bay communities.
As of Monday, $50,000 has been raised out of the $150,000 goal.
During a media event Monday morning, Angus expressed his deep concern with the spiking cases on the coast.
“I know many of these families, they’re living 15 to 20 people to a home. We have children who are already vulnerable. The mould, the lung damage, compromised immune systems,” Angus said. “This disaster sits at the door of Minister Miller … Perhaps, Minister Miller was so busy preparing for his court case against Indigenous children that he forgot the children in Kashechewan."
Mushkegowuk Council Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon has also called for a public inquiry into the crisis on the coast.
"On March 18, 2020, Mushkegowuk Council, on behalf of the member First Nations, declared the state of emergency as the pandemic was in the early days. The declaration identified the conditions of our First Nations and what this virus could do if it overwhelmed any of the communities," he said in a statement.
"We as a region were being proactive and asked for support to prepare for a potential crisis. Did any of the governments respond? No! Now we see what we were afraid of happening. The governments' mentality was that they did not see a threat," Solomon said.
Dariya Baiguzhiyeva, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, TimminsToday.com