'Very worried' Indigenous dads make public plea for COVID-19 compliance

Parents of kids with underlying health conditions are pleading with the public to obey the latest advice from public health officials.

Cree public health calls communities to action for the vulnerable among them

Phoenix Neeposh, 14, and Samuel Kanatewat, 3, are two people more at risk than the general population from COVID-19. Cree public health is hoping the 'tremendous' capacity of communities to mobilize will protect them and many others who are vulnerable. (Submitted by Eugene Neeposh and Louie-Rene Kanatewat)

On Friday morning, Eugene Neeposh and his 14-year-old son Phoenix left to travel North, relieved to be leaving the COVID-19 hotspot of Montreal. 

But for Eugene, the feeling of relief will only get him so far. Sources of worry are everywhere because his son is still very vulnerable.

"I'm very worried for Phoenix to be exposed to this virus," said Eugene, before they left to head back to his home in Chibougamau, some 700 kilometres north of Montreal. 

He has good reason to worry. On Feb. 27, Phoenix had one lung removed after a several-years-long battle with cancer.

Last week, he had his first post-operation round of chemotherapy. 

We have to be extra careful for him.- Eugene Neeposh, father of Phoenix

"I hope people back home can take the measures given seriously," said Eugene. "We have to be extra careful for him."

Louie-Rene Kanatewat is a Chisasibi father of five. He took to Twitter recently with a similar plea for his three-year-old son Samuel, who is also at risk. 

"We all have someone in our circle who is vulnerable if they get this virus. Ours is Samuel," tweeted Kanatewat. 

Indigenous populations more at risk

Phoenix and Samuel aren't alone. Canada's top public health officials have been warning for months that people with compromised immune systems and underlying health conditions such as asthma, heart disease and diabetes are more at risk from COVID-19. 

"In Indigenous communities, they are usually more vulnerable to infectious disease because they tend to have higher prevalence of chronic disease,"  said Faisca Richer, director of public health for the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay.

In the Cree territory, diabetes alone touches one third of the population and smoking rates are also very high, Richer said.

Physical distancing guidelines outlined by public health experts like Richer, include staying more than two metres apart, visiting only with people you live with, washing hands frequently for more than 20 seconds and avoiding touching the face. 

Amber Kanatewat, 11, made a poster to help protect her younger brother, Samuel. The family is heading to their bush camp. (submitted by Louie-Rene Kanatewat)

'Magic' of measures to protect

"If you follow [these measures] then even if you encounter someone who is sick, you're protected. That's the magic of these measures," said Richer, who has worked in Indigenous health for close to 20 years, in India, northern Quebec and in the Indigenous health sector of the Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ).

It's important for Canadians to recognize Indigenous populations are more at risk through no fault of their own, said Richer. 

"If we put all the responsibility on individuals to respect physical distancing and hand washing, but they live with 25 other people and have no running water, that really is unfair ethically," said Richer.

Louie-Rene Kanatewat (middle), three-year-old Samuel (left) and nine-year-old Theodore (right). 'This virus does not move by itself, but it moves through people. Staying put, and self-isolating is the easiest superhero job ever,' said Kanatewat. (Submitted by Louie-Rene Kanatewat)

She also said the ability of Cree and other Indigenous communities "to handle crises is just tremendous". 

For the moment, Kanatewat, father of Samuel, isn't taking any chances. He and his wife are taking the whole family to their bush camp for the next two months.

"This virus does not move by itself, but it moves through people. Staying put, and self-isolating is the easiest superhero job ever," wrote Kanatewat via Facebook messenger.

"Please just do it."