The unseen costs of swine flu

Manitoba reserve spends money earmarked for students' laptops on hand sanitizer

Health Canada thought about sending hand sanitizer to northern Manitoba’s flu-stricken aboriginal reserves. In fact, as the flu spread last month, public-health officials came together to debate the issue at length. In the end, their discussion hinged on a single question: whether or not the proposed hand sanitizer should have an alcohol base.

That single question was enough to paralyze the federal government, which ended up waiting weeks before sending supplies to desperate First Nations communities.

By the time government supplies arrived, some communities had already taken matters into their own hands. Chief David Harper of Garden Hill First Nation—whose remote northern reserve reported seven confirmed swine flu cases on Wednesday—says that the province’s sluggishness forced him to take $15,000 out his community’s education fund. “The high-school graduates were going to get laptops,” says Harper. “And we had to use that money for our emergency preparedness.” Money was also skimmed from an account set up to reward each Garden Hill student $50/month for perfect school attendance. This summer, 26 of the 28 Garden Hill students who started school last fall will graduate the year, a significant increase from past years. The money and promises of laptop computers “was to encourage them to move on.  And that helped a lot.”

Harper says he asked the province for supplies, but as the weeks passed and no new supplies showed up, he bought masks and hand sanitizer himself. A week after the $15,000 was spent, 2,500 bottles of government-issued hand sanitizer arrived.

Word of Health Canada’s delay was revealed Tuesday, during a Senate probe of the government’s response to the swine flu outbreak on reserves. Health Canada officials apparently hesitated in sending hand sanitizer to First Nations communities because they feared that people there would ingest the alcohol-based liquid. The department also said that supplies were on “back order,” although Harper claims that contact was made with supply companies, who disputed that statement. Grand Chief Sydney Garrioch calls that news “outrageous.” Protesting “the ignorance and possibly some racism expressed toward First Nations People,” Garrioch is calling on the Health Minister to apologize on behalf of her department.

Chief Harper also dismisses concern over alcohol content as “the poorest excuse I ever heard.” Still, the Garden Hill leader acknowledges the potential for hand sanitizer–which can contain up to 70 per cent alcohol–to be abused in his community. Harper says he has heard reports of the substance being boiled, and mixed into a drinkable concoction. He opted for non-alcoholic liquid sanitizer. In Garden Hill, the alcohol-based gel will be used mainly in public places–like the school, when it reopens. And most households will be getting disinfecting wipes, instead of a liquid product.

“First Nations leaders and communities know the intent and uses of hand sanitizer,” Chief Garrioch insisted. Hand sanitizers are especially important on Manitoba’s reserves, given that many households do have access to clean water to wash their hands with.

The inability to supply the most basic supplies to vulnerable remote communities highlights another failing of the federal government’s $1-billion national pandemic plan.  And it is that failure, perhaps, that confuses Garden Hill’s Chief Harper the most.  He stresses that his community is not being docile. “We’re not getting any help.  It doesn’t mean we’re helpless. It’s just that there’s money available for a pandemic situation.  So who’s using it?”  He is hoping to recover the money lost from his education fund in time to buy laptops for Garden Hill’s high-school graduates.

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