COVID-19 Northern Alberta

Pandemic shows problems with rural health care, worsens housing and mental health crisis

By Sarah Williscraft, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter/Fort McMurray Today

After he was diagnosed with COVID-19 earlier this month, Jules Nokohoo has not been to his home on the Chipewyan Prairie First Nation (CPFN) in Janvier.

As a 56-year-old man with diabetes, he is constantly watched while quarantining at a site for COVID-19 patients managed by the Athabasca Tribal Council.

He has lost 20 lbs. and cannot walk more than a few metres without losing his breath. Meanwhile, he worries about his mother, who lives with him and has also caught the virus.

Since March, Janvier and the First Nation have seen at least 44 COVID-19 cases. Nokohoo said the first few people to get sick lived in multigenerational homes like his own.

For local Indigenous leaders, these outbreaks show rural healthcare is not only lacking, but its success is directly related to improving living situations in their communities.

First Nation and Métis leaders of the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo region have spent years asking for help improving housing, food security, and mental health services. Instead, COVID-19 has only worsened their situation.

“Something has to give,” said Nokohoo.

Bad housing, addictions and mental health worsened under COVID-19

In the hamlet of Conklin, which is predominately Métis, at least 20 people in the community of 229 have had COVID-19. 

Resident Grace Richards said Conklin’s community’s housing crisis has played a role in the virus’ spread, as it is not uncommon to find up to three generations of people living in a home.

Cenovus plans to help Conklin, Janvier and the Chipewyan Prairie First Nation build new homes in the new year.

But for now, Conklin’s housing has been described as a crisis by all levels of government since the early 2000s. A January 2019 study from the Alberta Rural Development Network, for instance, found roughly 40 per cent of Conklin’s residents living in unstable housing, including an infant.

Richards points out there is no health centre in Conklin, forcing residents to travel at least two hours to Fort McMurray or Lac La Biche for prescriptions. Travel to medical appointments can take even longer, depending on where the doctor is based.

“People are so deathly afraid to get sick because we have nothing here,” said Richards. “We have no place to turn when people are getting depressed.”

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) said a similar lack of health services has brought more challenges to Fort Chipewyan than the pandemic.

Adam said the First Nation has seen a rise in deaths related to alcohol abuse since shutdowns began, and the community has no local addiction services.

This trend has been repeated across Alberta, which has seen more deaths from opioid overdoses this year than COVID-19

Between January and October this year, Fort McMurray, 13 people have died from opioid overdoses, four each have died from methamphetamine and cocaine, and three people died from alcohol poisoning.

He also said people have died from cancers and heart attacks because they were not able to see specialists they needed.

“They didn’t get the virus, but because of the pandemic we still lost a lot of people in our community,” said Adam.

‘COVID has completely changed our mindset’: Quintal

Chief Peter Powder of the Mikisew Cree First Nation said his First Nation is working with ACFN and Fort Chipewyan Métis to improve local healthcare. Some goals include getting dialysis machines and ensuring safe travel for people with medical appointments in Fort McMurray.

Ron Quintal, president of the Fort McKay Métis Nation, said leadership underestimated the effects COVID-19 shutdowns would have on mental health.

Before the pandemic, the community had one counsellor. When Nadine Dalheim became manager of Fort McKay’s Addictions and Mental Health Wellness Center in July, she knew the community needed a stronger focus on mental wellness. Dalheim has since increased staff and boosted community outreach.

“People are able to reach out to us more,” said Dalheim. “We’re seeing a bump-up in business because of our increase in staff.”

Mental health services will be a big part of Fort McKay’s pandemic recovery strategy moving forward, said Quintal.

“People are going to be anxious, people are going to be worried and people are going to be concerned about the future,” he said. “COVID has completely changed our mindset in terms of how we approach the world.”

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