Prepared by Peter Boldt, Multimedia Coordinator, Pacific Peoples’ Partnership
For many, the choice between health and financial security is not mutually exclusive. Working remotely has provided many metro residents the privilege of a stable paycheck while safeguarding them from the coronavirus pandemic. The same cannot be said for remote Indigenous communities in British Columbia and South Pacific Island nations that rely on tourism for economic well-being.
In late June, Public Health officials in British Columbia announced Phase 3, which allows non-essential travel within BC. This has led to an increase in intra-province travel and put many remote Indigenous communities at risk of coming into contact with COVID-19. Businesses reliant on tourism, such as retreats and fishing lodges, have begun re-opening, leading to a flood of tourists. Many businesses have opened their doors without proper consultation or discussion with Indigenous nations whose land they operate on.
The Haida community in particular has taken a strong stance against the re-opening of tourist businesses, namely large-scale fishing lodges. Haida matriarchs are leading a resistance movement against non-essential travellers entering the territory unless the provincial government provides rapid testing kits, culturally-sensitive contact tracing teams, and tourist screening measures. Remote Indigenous communities such as those on Haida Gwaii have limited access to health resources and could be devastated by a COVID-19 outbreak. Haida Gwaii has only two ventilators for its population of about 4500. Moreover, for many Indigenous peoples, the protection of elders is tied to their cultural survival, as many are the last speakers of endangered languages and keepers of oral histories. And so, despite the economic implications, Indigenous leaders are exercising their sovereign right in protecting their lands and people.
Small island nations in the South Pacific have had a similar struggle with COVID-19, with governments closing borders to non-essential travel for fear of exposure. The tourism sector has taken a massive hit, causing huge economic shocks and prompting many to call coronavirus “the job-killer of the century. To put things in perspective, tourism makes up 20-30% of economic activity in countries like Samoa and Tonga, according to the IMF. Many island nations hoped to create a summer “travel bubble” to admit tourists from countries with low caseloads, only to determine the risks still too high. With massive job loss as well as food shortages affecting many Pacific Islands, public policymakers and citizens are grappling with the dichotomy between tourism dollars and health.
Both Indigenous communities and South Pacific island nations face unique circumstances in this pandemic. Many of these communities are vulnerable to a COVID-19 outbreak due to limited health resources, remoteness from larger facilities, and reliance on tourism. At the time of writing this article, B.C. Health officials have declared a COVID-19 outbreak on Haida Gwaii that has infected at least 13 individuals.
At Pacific Peoples’ Partnership, we believe that communities come first. We call on the provincial government and international community to respect the rights of Indigenous and South Pacific nations and prioritize health and safety over tourism dollars. We also call on B.C. tourist businesses to engage with, cooperate with, and respect the demands of the Haida Nation and all Indigenous nations.