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LETTER: Indigenous community values and the COVID-19 vaccine

From readers Mary Ann Morris and Randy Janzen

We worked in an Indigenous community in northern B.C. for nine months this past year as public health nurses. Our job was dominated by COVID-19. The work was challenging and stressful but also very rewarding.

In March of this year, the community was informed it would receive the vaccine for all adults who wanted it. The health centre staff phoned every home in the village and in a couple of days we had a fully booked community clinic. As nurses we responded to many questions about the vaccine and ultimately, resistance was virtually non-existent.

When the vaccine arrived a few days later, there was a welcoming ceremony conducted by several hereditary chiefs that included drumming and prayer. Additional staff were brought to the village for the community vaccine campaign, and they received a warm welcome from the village. On a professional level, it was one of the most rewarding experiences in which we have ever participated — an entire community working together for such a meaningful cause.

Prior to the vaccine, the community was very hard-hit with COVID — four times the provincial average. As healthcare professionals, we witnessed young, healthy people become very sick for weeks. Most recovered but some were hospitalized, and others had long-haul symptoms. Elders were harder hit, with some spending long periods of time in hospital completely isolated from friends and family. Two elders died.

And then we all witnessed science in action: two weeks after the community vaccine campaign, the case count fell to zero and remained there until we left three months later.

When we reflect back on why there was such buy-in and a sense of the community working together (compared to current protests around the province) we think there were two main reasons. First, because the community was so hard-hit, everyone knew someone who had suffered greatly. The disease impacted every extended family. Second, we believe the village approached issues from a collectivist rather than an individualist perspective and mutually concluded that getting the vaccine was going to protect the elders and those that were vulnerable, rather than a self-imposition.

When we see people now who are so against the vaccine, we reflect on our experience and revel in what a community was able to accomplish when they focused on the collective rather than the individual. The community seemed to navigate their way through the complex tension between personal rights and the common good in a way that we believed benefited everyone, particularly the most vulnerable.

Mary Ann Morris

Randy Janzen

Nelson