Cree Anishinaabe physician talks medicine, and a need to trust the COVID-19 vaccine

At the age of four, Marcia Anderson says she knew that one day, she wanted to become a doctor.

Twenty years later, Anderson was the youngest Indigenous graduate from the Faculty of Medicine in Manitoba and the youngest president of the Indigenous Physicians Association of Canada.

Anderson, who is Cree-Anishinaabe, credits her family for the support while she was going through school, and now as she continues with long days during a global pandemic, as a medical officer of health in Manitoba for Indigenous Services Canada.

The COVID-19 pandemic was certainly not on Anderson’s radar while she was in medical school.

Anderson was two years into her practice when H1N1 hit, but it was nowhere near the scale of the novel coronavirus.

Manitoba is currently seeing some of it’s lowest, daily case counts since last October.

One year into the pandemic, the number of positive COVID-19 cases among First Nations people, both and off reserve is inching closer to 10,000.

Currently, First Nations people also make up nearly three-quarters of all active cases in the province.

Anderson says longstanding challenges like overcrowded housing is part of the reason.

“When we think about the way the coronavirus spreads, which is through respiratory droplets between people who are in close contact for more than 15 minutes and we think about the need for self isolation which ideally means private bathroom and private bedroom, those housing challenges make it really difficult to isolate properly,” says Anderson.

Anderson says the longstanding inequitable access to health care is another example of why rates of the virus have been so much higher amongst First Nations people.

Institutional racism is also a concern. Some people might be hesitant to get tested or access health care because of past experiences.

“One thing we have heard and I’ve had concerns about myself is when our relatives go to the hospital and the no visitor policies means they’re there alone and concern about who will advocate for them if they experience racism and are not in a position to advocate for themselves. So, that is one part of the concern and is leading to some people avoiding access to healthcare because of it” explains Anderson on the latest episode of Face to Face.

Anderson believes past experiences are also behind some peoples fears about getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Some concerns that have been raised around past experiences about medical experimentation without consent on First Nations people, which of course would also be a form of racism and the concern that this vaccine was approved very quickly and maybe we’re being experimented on again,” says Anderson.

“And I want to assure people that’s not the case. There have been rigorous studies and approval processes that have been gone through. But these are the long term impacts that experiences of racism in healthcare do have that are impacting the COVID pandemic.”

Vaccines have now gone out to all 63 First Nations in Manitoba with the first doses focused on personal care home residents and staff, as well as Elders.

In early February, a pop-up vaccination site also opened up, in the city of Winnipeg for First Nations health care workers, knowledge keepers, and traditional healers.

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