A week after the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic, Constance Lake First Nation, located about 600 kilometres northwest of Sudbury, declared a state of emergency and cited a lack of health-care personnel and medical supplies.
On Wednesday morning, Chief Rick Allen appeared on a Facebook livestream to assure the 60 or so virtual viewers that the community was not going into a full lockdown. He also encouraged community members to support each other.
But to the federal government, he had a different message.
“As Indigenous communities, are we a top priority? We have to get some assurance that we are as much a priority as any municipality or any big cities," Mr. Allen said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
Many Indigenous communities across Canada share in the heightened state of anxiety over the impact the virus could have and are ramping up preparations. Some have declared states of emergency while others have closed their borders to non-community members to reduce the possibility of community transmission.
Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said that First Nation, Inuit and Métis communities face a higher risk of “severe outcomes” given health inequities, higher rates of underlying medical conditions and challenges of remote and fly-in communities.
Take, for instance, the fact that Constance Lake has a single nurse to serve the 800 or so on-reserve members, according to Mr. Allen.
While the community is accessible year-round from Highway 11, the nearest hospital in Hearst, Ont., is limited to 44 beds.
Dr. Annelind Wakegijig, a First Nations physician who works in Batchewana First Nation in Northern Ontario, said there is a heightened sense of anxiety about the impact of the coronavirus on Indigenous communities. There are cultural implications, too.
Historically and culturally Indigenous people tend to gather in times of crisis, she said, adding that runs counter to current public-health advice.
“Now we are dealing with a situation where we are being asked not to gather,” Dr. Wakegijig said.
Applying public-health recommendations such as social-distancing practices can be difficult when people share cramped quarters, Dr. Wakegijig added, saying there is concern, too, about clean water for hand-washing in some communities.
“That is impractical in some communities where there isn’t even any safe water to drink or wash hands,” she said.
Federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller told The Globe the level of increased fear in communities is “very real."
The concern manifests itself in a number of ways, he said, including with a feeling that communities will be left behind.
“We are at pains to say they will not,” Mr. Miller said, adding there are intense efforts under way to mobilize resources to ensure there are food and medical supplies, including in fly-in communities.
Mr. Miller also pointed to a $305-million support fund announced last week to help address the immediate needs in First Nation, Inuit and Métis communities.
Many Indigenous communities have tried to ramp up efforts to prepare for the coronavirus as it spreads in Canada.
Kahkewistahaw First Nation, in southern Saskatchewan, recently began processing emergency payments of $250 to all adult band members, on- and off-reserve.
Beausoleil First Nation, which is located across three islands in Georgian Bay, has started screening people crossing by ferry for symptoms of COVID-19.
The community is restricting ferry access to year-round residents, as the islands are a popular spot for cottagers from Toronto and elsewhere, and asking residents to avoid all non-essential travel.
“It’s tough for all of us to have to put these measures out into our community, and we hope that you respect all these precautions,” Chief Guy Monague said in a Facebook address this week.
Dr. James Makokis, a family doctor who works in Kehewin Cree Nation, located about 200 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, said the community had only two test kits.
“We should have the capacity to test within the reserve,” he said.
There is also concern in some Indigenous communities about past responses to crises, such as the H1N1 outbreak in 2009.
In the midst of that crisis, several northern First Nations in Manitoba were sent body bags and Health Canada later said it regretted the “alarm” the shipments caused.
St. Theresa Point First Nation was one of the communities to receive body bags. More than 10 years later, it is still waiting for permanent health-care capacity.
“We have asked for a hospital for so many years,” Chief Marie Wood said.
The community is also waiting on a shipment of goods to help prevent any possible COVID-19 outbreak, including hand sanitizer, soap and cleaning supplies.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he has spoken with a number of Indigenous leaders about their concerns including the state of infrastructure in many communities that makes social distancing, hand-washing and other public-health advice “extremely difficult or impossible” to follow.
Indigenous leaders have told him that health-care capacity in their communities are already stretched to or beyond the breaking point, he said.
“For a lot of Indigenous communities, there is a sense of fear and a sense of panic and a real need for urgency because the injustice that they are facing right now, the lack of really basic human rights, access to clean drinking water, housing, are all things that are really going to compound a potential outbreak,” Mr. Singh said.
Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler of Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), a political organization representing 49 First Nation communities in Northern Ontario, said there has been a lack of clarity over the $305-million federal funding package, adding this has complicated preparations.
“Communities have a lot of questions right now, but we don’t have all the answers," he said.
Time is of the essence, he added, saying there are concerns about accessing essential supplies and the impending closing of winter roads, which will require that goods be transported by plane.
“The window is closing," he said.
Dr. Jane Philpott, a health adviser to NAN and former federal health and Indigenous-services minister, said there is no shortage of goodwill from those trying to tackle the crisis.
But she said she has heard concern among Indigenous leaders about issues including poor infrastructure, which are the source of worry at the best of times.
At a time like this, it could reach “crisis levels,” Dr. Philpott said.
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