Despite daily exhortations from health-care officials to stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic, and repeated pleas by remote communities to stay away, the Heiltsuk Nation on B.C.’s Central Coast says travellers in yachts and sailboats are still trying to access their shores — and being turned away.
On March 27, the Heiltsuk issued a bylaw banning non-residents and non-Heiltsuk from entering their territory, including Bella Bella, to avoid bringing infection into the community. Essential workers including health-care staff are exempt.
On Saturday, the First Nation turned away two sailboats en route to Alaska, and have stopped other vessels from docking, said Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett.
“I know that people are scared and trying to find a place of refuge, and maybe get away from the urban centres, but our community of Bella Bella is highly vulnerable to a COVID-19 outbreak,” she said.
“This is not the time to visit Bella Bella.”
Slett says for her community, the travel restriction isn’t a request, but a bylaw under Heiltsuk self-governance, and it will be enforced.
One of the pleasure crafts looking for supplies did get groceries delivered by a neighbouring community, she said, but was not allowed to stop in Bella Bella.
“They were provided with our bylaws and our travel restrictions, and we have our guardians out there monitoring, and certainly our community is taking this very seriously.”
Indigenous communities have every reason to take the pandemic seriously, not just because of limited access to health care and vulnerable elders, but because of a long, difficult history of diseases introduced by outsiders — from smallpox to measles to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
“What we are experiencing in today’s time gives me a greater insight into the … sense of hopelessness and helplessness that our ancestors must have experienced during times of epidemics in the past when many of our people died,” said Heiltsuk elder Pauline Waterfall, 76, in a video posted this week.
Waterfall said her mother heard stories from her grandmother about the Spanish flu, and how so many people died each day that proper burials couldn’t be done.
She “described this time as utter chaos, confusion, panic and fear,” said Waterfall.
There are no cases of COVID-19 recorded in Bella Bella to date.
However, there are only 10 hospital beds available in the community of 1,400 people, if the virus does spread there.
“While we have a stellar medical team in place, our health-care system will collapse if an epidemic hits our community,” said Waterfall.
Slett said contingency plans are being made — including taking over the community school gym for patients, should it be needed — but outsiders should know there’s little health care available.
An urgent air ambulance to Vancouver takes an hour and a half, but that’s dependent on weather and availability. Heiltsuk members have waited days, at times, for an airlift, said Slett.
Watch Heiltsuk community leaders share advice on social distancing:
Heiltsuk leaders are also telling their own people to self-isolate for 14 days when they return to the community, and avoid trips to Port Hardy for groceries — or any other non-essential travel — instead relying on BC Ferries to bring supplies in weekly by freight.
BC Ferries is still travelling to Bella Bella and other coastal communities, at winter service levels, but with a warning to travellers to check advisories from local communities, including Bella Bella, before visiting.
Pacific Coastal Airlines, which normally serves Bella Bella, has suspended flights on all routes until May 2.
Slett says so far, the people turned away from Bella Bella have understood.
“It’s a hard thing for us to do, be we are thinking of everybody’s safety.”
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