The chair of the Hutterian Safety Council (HSC) says health policy is actively impeding the Saskatchewan Health Authority's work with Hutterite colonies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
David Tschetter said on Monday there is no useful purpose to identifying new cases of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan as belonging to Hutterite colonies, and it also stigmatizes separate colonies in the province.
"What we're finding is that most Hutterite leaders are very reasonable and very understanding, and when the government started identifying the COVID cases by culture ... it started to push our people away," Tschetter said on Monday.
In a letter to government officials, including Premier Scott Moe and Health Minister Jim Reiter, the HSC urged the government to identify new cases by region only without identifying new cases as Hutterite communities.
The regular updates from the province on COVID-19 cases has often included the number of new cases, as well as the portion of those cases linked to Hutterite colonies, who are visibly identifiable as ethnic and religious minorities.
There were 31 cases of COVID-19 identified in Saskatchewan on Monday. The daily update indicates that 22 of them are in colonies found throughout the southern, central and Saskatoon regions.
The Manitoba government no longer identifies cases as belonging to Hutterite colonies after complaints of discrimination and profiling.
"It makes no sense to me at all — and we have provided a very thorough and practical approach that's an alternative to this, that would actually remove the fear of being stigmatized and identified in the public eye," Tschetter said
It laid out suggestions the government could utilize to disseminate information on COVID-19 without identifying Hutterite communities, such as reporting by regions only or not reporting clusters which have already been contained.
It also contained guidelines and information for health workers, officials, the public and other Hutterite colonies.
Dr. Saqib Shahab, the chief medical health officer, said the settings where transmission happens is more important and should be identified without "pointing fingers."
No intent to stigmatize: Moe
The intent for stigma is not there, Premier Scott Moe emphasized. He said getting tested and an early identification is key to stopping and slowing the spread of the virus.
"We should not stigmatize the numbers that are being presented day by day," Moe said. "Those numbers are the result of doing the right thing: people putting themselves forward to be tested."
He described the outbreak as "quite severe," saying there are about 5,000 or 6,000 Hutterites in Saskatchewan. If there were 300 or 400 people infected, that would be a "tremendously high infection rate," Moe added.
Minister of Rural and Remote Health Warren Kaeding said community leaders have informed him of safety measures being taken in certain communities, such as voluntary lockdowns, and changes to activities like loading trucks or operating machinery.
Hutterite produce and other products are selling less at places like farmers markets as well, according to Mary-Ann Kirkby, a Hutterite author living in Prince Albert.
"I don't know if there is a right call," Kirkby said of the decision to continue identifying cases in colonies. "The problem is that if you call out certain colonies, everybody is being stigmatized anyway."
No one turns against the City of Weyburn if there are cases there, she noted. Hutterites can and do isolate themselves just as people do in mainstream society, Kirkby added.
Kirkby said food has been handed out in staggered duos, rather than the assumed communal eating areas, for example.
"There are 400 Hutterite colonies in western Canada and there is only a handful that has COVID. It's the stigmatization that's causing a problem."