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How Kahnawake is dealing with COVID-19

 (Courtesy Andrea Meloche)


 While COVID-19 is a rapidly evolving issue, Kahnawa’kehró:non are taking measures to protect the health and safety of community members, to limit the spread of this pandemic.

Canada’s COVID-19 response 

As the Quebec government announced last Friday, all daycares, schools, CEGEPS and universities in the province will be closed for at least two weeks, but likely longer, as precautions against the spread of the coronavirus; leading to parental stress and anxiety.

This week prime minister Justin Trudeau outlined additional actions being taken under the government of Canada’s response to COVID-19 to limit its spread. Trudeau strongly urged people to heed the recommendations and avoid non-essential travel outside the country, and to self-isolate for 14 days upon re-entry, if travellers can even get back in at this point, “with exceptions for workers who are essential to the movement of goods and people.”

Experts suggest when dealing with a global outbreak, we need to be extremely cautious about not creating panic that can lead to anxiety.

Kateri Memorial Hospital Centre

Lisa Westaway, executive director of the Kateri Memorial Hospital Centre (KMHC), said there are different reactions in the community to the coronavirus, from anxiety to acceptance to skepticism.

“There are people that are more anxious,” she said. “I think as time goes by, there probably will be more difficulty, because people are not able to work, they are stuck in their homes, and this can impact their financial status. We are really looking at measures to the situation we are living in to decrease the anxiety as much as possible.

“We want people to be able to self-isolate without worrying about finances or food or basic necessities. Some people are well aware and understand that the virus will come to Kahnawake no matter what,” she said. “And the measures we put in place will make the situation better, so it is a common approach. It is just getting through it together.”

In fact, late Wednesday, Westaway announced one confirmed case in town (see front page story).

“A physician who was in New York City from the 7th to the 9th of March was diagnosed with COVID-19 today (Wednesday),” Westaway said. “However, she had self-isolated after her husband started having symptoms, and therefore she was not in contact during the contagion phase with anybody from the community. Because she practiced all the measures that we implemented, there was no impact to anybody.”

“Some community members are not taking this seriously,” she said. “Which we feel can place them in danger for our vulnerable population. We don’t think it is a huge number, but some people are going back and forth, who are not self-isolating when having symptoms.”

Westaway said the numbers of infected people are going up, but it doesn’t mean that the precautions are not working.

“The measures we are implementing are to slow down the transmission,” she said. “So not everybody is sick at once, and we can provide medical care to this small percentage that are going to need it. 

“We are asking people who are over 70 to really self-isolate, to be at home on their own,” she said. “Because the goal is to minimize them getting the virus.” 

In her opinion these measures can make a difference, yet it doesn’t mean the community won’t have cases.

Westaway encouraged community members to get the latest reputable information from the experts.

“People are sharing wrong information, so that also is not great,” she said. “Because people who don’t know better believe everything they read. That is why we’ve created Kahnawake911, where we do daily updates; that is why we have a new web page on KMHC.”

Westaway believes only after about a six-month-period can people argue whether the health professionals dramatized the situation or not, “and now let’s just listen and put the measures in place and do what we have to do, and let’s get through this and then let’s debate whether we were over-reacting or not.

“Everything will be okay,” she said. “We just have to go through it as a group, it is about all of us working together.”

Protecting yourself and community 

Kris Manoukian, pharmacist and owner of Old Malone Pharmacy in Kahnawake, believes it is important to listen to what the authorities are saying, yet managing stress arising around the virus is necessary, too.

Manoukian thinks this can be a dangerous infection, but panicking in the community and “purchasing toilet paper for 10 months at a time will not save anybody.” In fact, the limit there is three packages of nine rolls each.

“Let’s think about our elderly,” he said. “Let’s think about our vulnerable, about those who don’t have cars. Come to the pharmacy, buy your supplies, but do not hoard your supplies, because other people are going to need those supplies.

“It is extremely critical and important to understand that we do not live in the environment where we have unlimited supply and everything,” he said. “We are getting supplies regularly but we have to put limits for everyone, so everybody can have at least a minimum supply at home.”

According to Manoukian, the pharmacy put in certain protocols to protect the employees and customers, and it will be blocking the over purchasing of supplies. 

“At this point it is common sense,” he said. “Use your logic, everybody should be thinking about themselves and also the surroundings.”

Entering the pharmacy, clients will be screened. As of yesterday (Thursday), they will no longer be able to carry their own baskets, but will merely have to point or vocalize what they need, according to Manoukian.

There will also be a plexi-glass installed at the back prescription area to limit contact.

He believes the most important thing is to stay home, especially those who came back recently from a trip or cruise and have a slight cough or fever.

Manoukian suggests the first thing people have to think about is whether they were traveling for the last two weeks, or whether they were in contact with people travelled recently, and if the answer is ‘yes,’ they must not leave their homes, and should call 811 or 1-877-644-4545.

It is a civic duty to call, in addition to the basic approaches (washing hands for 20 seconds, wear gloves when being in public, no touching face), and “just help everybody out,” he said.

Dealing with anxiety around COVID-19

Suzy Goodleaf, a psychologist from Kahnawake, says when it comes to easing anxiety around the coronavirus, people can take simple steps to protect themselves and others.

“It is actually about trying to keep up with what people are saying and what is recommended to do,” she said. “So, you want to be concerned enough to keep yourself safe, but not afraid, so that you cannot function.

“In terms of what can you do about it, it is having the right information and making sure that you have things that you can do instead of looking at what you cannot do,” she said.

She believes the situation is about flipping the focus, because a lot of information is about don’ts (don’t go to school, don’t go to restaurants, and so on) instead of dos – looking at possible actions.

“So, what can you do with your children at home? What can you do at your office? How can you connect?” she said.

She believes the problem is that isolation leads to the feeling of confinement.

“That particularly is difficult for people in Kahnawake,” Goodleaf said. “Because of the history of 1990, and we are just through a period of barricades up again when the trains were being blocked and so people were already activated.”

Goodleaf suggests in order to be rational about it, people have to manage the anxiety through deep breathing, doing some exercises at home, taking a walk, or doing yoga. 

Specifically, Goodleaf highlighted ceremonies as connection to higher power, “whether it is Creator, or whoever, it is really useful to ground yourself, and connect to some power and feeling that there is some order to this that is making sense.”

She thinks it helps people to being able to look at the positives instead of what the negatives are, and the situation is kind of pulling people back to more interesting things.

In her opinion, people can use this time for themselves, enjoying crafts, planting, cleaning house, spending time with kids, organizing their time, “that can really help shift focus from what seems really dangerous.”

Staying home is preventive measures, but we have to be careful not to create panic, she said.

“We are survivor beings and our brains are programmed to survive,” she continued. “That is where some danger can come from in terms of creating panic, so we have to be very careful.”

She highlighted some people asking for recommendations on how to deal in self-isolation. There are those who are sharing useful information on social media.

“It is a way of connecting,” she said. “The emotional side is really important and touch for human beings was always very important; it is one our key survival mechanism, so on that level making sure that kids are taken care of on an emotional level.”

Social networking is significant, “even for those in the hospital,” she said.

“If they won’t be visited for three weeks it is going to be really hard on them,” she continued. “So, what are we going to do to ensure that they get visits or connections somehow but keep them safe?

“We don’t want to make it to the point that we are afraid to do that,” she said. “It is about knowing what’s safe and not safe behavior, reaching precautions that you need, so we can care for each other in a healthy way.”

Goodleaf thinks it is also important for parents and caretakers to help children feel safe during this pandemic. 

Depending on their age, children will need different kinds of reassurance, she said.

“Infants need holding, cuddling, soft words and song. The key here is the caregiver has to be grounded to transmit the feelings of safety,” Goodleaf said.

As toddlers are just learning to identify their feelings, helping to identify empathy can be very helpful, and the way parents treat their feelings is a model for them on how to treat others, according to Goodleaf.

“They still need physical touch for reassurance,” she said. “They also may not understand the words around them but will feel the fear; be mindful of the energy you put out.”

School-age children understand information around them, and they need to know how they are of importance to the family, she said.

“They are learning social values,” Goodleaf continued. “Give them jobs and direction to help them to feel useful. They could make cards for people at the hospital who don’t get visitors. Help with their siblings. Do some schoolwork.”

In her words, teens are learning to be independent, yet still need reassurance, and need discussions about what they think can be helpful, she said. 

“If you share your thoughts, they may too,” she continued. “Helping them know specific things to do and including them whenever possible can be helpful. Social media is good to help them to connect with others but just like adults, it can become extremely overwhelming to them.”

Courtesy Suzy Goodleaf Suzy Goodleaf, a psychologist from Kahnawake, believes people can manage dangerous situations, supporting each other in a good way and maintaining connection, while being apart.

Planning time for kids and family 

Megan Kanerahtenha:wi Whyte, a local art therapist, made a two-week plan for her two kids to support the learning process as well as family leisure time during the quarantine period.

“I put together a plan that focuses on holistic education using hands on and visual learning,” she said. “Art has always been its own language for understanding the world, so I use creative means to consolidate learning.

“I have books and websites for basic math, reading and writing skills while using art, the land and our traditional teachings for both focused and spontaneous learning,” she said. “I integrate mindfulness strategies, yoga, hiking and walking. My schedule is fluid, but it is structured with the emphasis on doing it together.”

Her family was an active part of planning as well as guiding spontaneous learning. 

“Children have so much curiosity and it’s wonderful to be able to follow their lead,” she said. “It’s a good opportunity to spend time, connect and learn from each other. Children have a lot of their own knowledge and perspective in the world.”

Whyte believes in a time of uncertainty and anxiety, making art, experiments, baking, physical activities, and relaxing can be helpful for families.

“It does not need to be rigid or based entirely on books,” she said. “Do what feels right for your family.”

She thinks child-led and themed activities are wonderful opportunities to develop critical thinking, reasoning and basic skills as well moments to connect.

At the same time, Whyte said having a support network to talk is important to deal with parental stress.

“We have emotional cups that need to be filled too, so that we can focus on helping our little ones fill their own,” she said. 

According to the official website of the government of Quebec, as of March 19 (Thursday) there were 121 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Quebec (including one death and one recovered person), 19 cases on the South Shore and one in Kahnawake.

There are now more than 800 confirmed cases across Canada.

A traditional approach 

Calvin Jacobs works at the KMHC and regularly teaches locals about the traditional medicines we can find in and around Kahnawake.

“I was talking to an elder the other day. He told me that when he was a young boy there was a sickness (he called it yellow fever) in the community,” said Jacobs. 

“He said that many people died. His family lived on the farm and his grandmother was very knowledgeable about medicine and she made a pot of medicine and told all her family members to drink a cup a few times a day. He said that none of his family were taken by the sickness. He said that none of his family went away from the farm during this sickness, they all stayed home.

“He said because they were farmers the had enough food to carry them throughout the winter. So he believes that the medicine they used was very helpful but also because they lived on the farm and didn’t go to where the sickness was, they didn’t suffer the losses that other families did,” said Jacobs, who added a warning that although this was a story he picked up from an elder, the current pandemic is unprecedented and health officials need to be consulted and listened to if anyone has any doubts. 

“So I think what he was saying is that at times like this we need to follow the advice of staying home to protect ourselves and our loved ones. I read a lot of different things that people are sharing about medicines to use at this time. I don’t know if they help or not. But if people feel better using these medicines, then who am I to say stop? 

“We have a ceremony in the longhouse we call iethi’sotho’okón:’a. This ceremony is put through twice a year (spring and fall) to push away these types of sickness. So the longhouse people believe that they are protected throughout the year by these spirits,” he said.

Front-line workers 

Andrea Meloche is a licensed practical nurse at Centre Hebergement Ormstown, and while sharing her experience as someone from town who cannot self-quarantine because of her job, she made it clear she wasn’t alone.

“There are hundreds of us out there every day, and not just health care workers!” she said. 

“Police, firefighters, EMTs, even delivery people, store clerks – all essential to keep things going. I applaud everyone who has to keep working in order to maintain a functional economy.

“Honestly, nothing much has changed for us. We always practice excellent hand-washing, hand sanitizer use and wear gloves and gowns and masks when necessary. We are always doing our best to avoid spreading infectious diseases to other patients,” she said.

“The only thing that has changed is our patients’ families are no longer allowed to visit. But that’s everywhere, not just where I work.”

It’s a different reality, but her and her colleagues have adapted.

“I’m okay with it. There is no stress or worry about income or how I will pay bills. I’m not going to get cabin fever and my co-workers are incredible and we all try to keep things light and upbeat,” said Meloche.

“Of course there’s the added chance of catching the virus having to leave the house every day. But it’s my job. And they need every employee to show up every day.

“Before this virus, there have always been many infectious diseases that we have had to deal with, contain, avoid catching and not spread to other patients and we have done so, successfully,” she said.

“So yes, we are taking this new one very seriously, but we are not panicking.”

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