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Samuel Knott is facing an overwhelming responsibility: the weight of leading his community in northern Manitoba during a potentially catastrophic COVID-19 outbreak while he battles the coronavirus himself.

Mr. Knott, Chief of the Red Sucker First Nation, said since he tested positive five days ago, he has been isolating at home and taking traditional medicine to cope with mild symptoms, including a cough and chills.

The future for his remote, fly-in community, hit by the H1N1 crisis in 2009, remains uncertain. It is unclear how many members of Red Sucker have the coronavirus now or exactly how the illness made its away into the community, the Chief said.

Anxiety levels are high, particularly over what effect the virus could have on elders and those with chronic illnesses such as diabetes.

“Media coverage is on COVID, people dying left and right,” Mr. Knott told The Globe and Mail. “That’s the scare that our elders have.”

Red Sucker First Nation is not alone in its fear about the potentially deadly impact of COVID-19. There is widespread concern about the spread of COVID-19 among First Nations across the country, particularly in the second wave of the pandemic.

Communities in northern Manitoba facing outbreaks are very remote, making them far away from medical care. The virus also has the potential to spread like wildfire in the communities because of overcrowded homes and other challenges.

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“It’s overwhelming,” Mr. Knott said. “In this community, you don’t have running water. ... I dreaded this day from happening to our community, knowing where our community is at ... that we won’t be able to cope if we were to have an outbreak.”

Tim Warmington, a spokesperson for Public Safety Canada, said work is under way to assess the situation in Red Sucker through the federal government, the province of Manitoba and community partners.

The Canadian Armed Forces dispatched a liaison and reconnaissance team from CFB Shilo in Manitoba on Monday, he added, pointing out that additional resources may be deployed if required once an assessment is complete.

Shamattawa First Nation, another nearby fly-in community in northern Manitoba, is also facing a nightmare scenario: at least 357 positive cases among its 1,000 residents as of Sunday.

National Defence spokesperson Jessica Lamirande said the CAF deployed additional members to Shamattawa on the weekend, including a medical team of 17 people.

She said a temporary team, made up of approximately 40 CAF staff, was also sent to the community to help set up an alternative isolation area. Six Canadian Rangers who were deployed to the community on Dec. 4 also continue their work in the community, she said.

The NDP’s Niki Ashton is the MP for the northern Manitoba riding of Churchill-Keewatinook Aski that includes multiple fly-in communities, including Red Sucker and Shamattawa.

On the situation in Shamattawa, she said the community had been requesting military support and she is pleased to see them on the ground. She stressed, however, that it is a continuing crisis. The community has also been grappling with cases of tuberculosis in addition to the COVID-19 crisis, she said.

“This is possibly one of the worst-hit communities in the country when it comes to community transmission,” Ms. Ashton said.

“It is a situation that is evolving hour by hour and day by day. Yes, the supports are there now, but we are talking about very high test positivity rates. The Chief a few days ago had been clear with me, and I’ve heard this from officials, that there is concern that COVID may have spread throughout the community.”

Sheila North, a former grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, an organization representing communities in northern Manitoba, said the situation exemplifies what happens when communities are “neglected for so long.” She pointed to challenges including inadequate and crowded housing, access to health care and food insecurity.

“A pandemic just highlights the neglect that has been going on for generations,” Ms. North said. “It very much is a crisis on top of another crisis. ... It is unacceptable.”

During a recent radio address, Chief Eric Redhead, along with a member of the military and the Red Cross, urged everyone to remain calm, to stay home and to practise physical distancing.

The Chief also explained that personnel may be knocking on doors to conduct wellness checks and possibly COVID-19 tests in the coming days as part of efforts to understand the extent of spread in the tight-knit community.

“We need everyone to work together and make sure we welcome them in and work with everyone,” Mr. Redhead said.

“I know a lot of people are very nervous and scared, and that’s okay. It is unprecedented. We are afraid for our loved ones; we are afraid for our elders. ... We have to remember we have wonderful supports in the community right now to help us get through this.”

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