The mayor of a small Nunavut community hit hard by the novel coronavirus breathed a sigh of relief when hundreds of doses of the Moderna vaccine were delivered Wednesday.
The fly-in hamlet of Arviat, on the western shore of Hudson Bay, has a population of 1,800 and reported 222 of the territory’s 266 cases this fall. Due to a lack of housing, many people live together and aren’t able to isolate properly.
Now with enough doses to vaccinate most of its residents, Arviat will likely be among the first communities in Canada to achieve herd immunity.
“I feel very humbled with that opportunity,” Mayor Joe Savikataaq Jr. told HuffPost Canada.
To reach that milestone, however, Savikataaq said the community must overcome all the false information on social media that’s undermining trust in the vaccine.
“There was all kinds of misinformation circulating around,” Savikataaq told HuffPost. “It had nothing to do with distrust of the health-care system or the government. It was the actual vaccine itself and all the false information on social media which quite a few people have access to.”
The hamlet is taking a novel approach to combat vaccine hesitancy. Anyone who gets the shot can have their name entered to win one of five $2,000 prizes. The winners will be announced next week on the local radio station and social media.
“That game plan is working,” said Savikataaq, noting residents were excited about the draw as vaccinations began in the community hall Thursday morning.
The day before, he and nine respected elders got their shots to boost public confidence.
“I feel a sense of relief,” Savikataaq said. “I could finally breathe a bit better now and in fact I was the very first one in this community to get the shot. The other elders were right behind me.”
Vaccine clinics have also been set up in three other Nunavut communities and 400 residents have been vaccinated as of Monday. National vaccine guidelines recommend Indigeous communities receive the vaccine this winter because of the “disproportionate consequences” if residents are infected without access to health care.
Indigenous leaders and officials across Canada are concerned about vaccine hesitancy, whether it stems from misinformation online, or a long history of colonialism.
“It’s safe,” Nunavut’s Premier Joe Savikataaq Sr. (whose son is the mayor of Arviat) told reporters earlier this week, urging residents to partake. “Just because someone claims it is harmful does not make it true. It is not a cure for COVID-19, but it will help us fight the virus.”
Watch: Engagement crucial to overcome Indigenous vaccine concerns, minister says. Story continues below.
Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller said at a news conference Wednesday that the greatest challenges to stopping the spread of COVID-19 in Indigenous communities is poor housing conditions and systemic racism in the health-care system.
He said while there’s been “a real keen uptake first and foremost among the elders in long-term care facilities,” others remain hesitant.
“Indigenous people have felt like they’ve been used as guinea pigs and if you see some of the horrific stories coming out of the ’50s and ’60s, you see a health-care system that mistreats them,” Miller said, referring to Canada’s abusive treatment of Inuit people infected with Tuberculosis.
He said the best way to encourage people to get vaccinated is by sharing information including in Indigenous languages and from respected community members, such as elders.
Elder Helen Clifton, 95, of Gitga’at First Nation, B.C., rose to the challenge earlier this month by sharing in a Twitter video that she chose to get vaccinated to be a role model and encourage others to do the same.
“What’s precious to Granny should be precious to all the Gitga’at’s,” said the great grandmother.
“Your family first and the vaccine and protecting your household. When you protect your household, you protect your family, and then your protection for everyone else and that should be good for all the residents of Gitga’at.”