15 Jan THE TRUTH ABOUT UNIVERSAL HEALTHCARE
I identify as a Pakistani-Canadian settler on Turtle Island. As a settler, I acknowledge my privilege and the way I live off and benefit from Indigenous land. I am committed to working against the harm perpetrated by the settler-colonial state.
This summer, as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, many people were presented with waves of information about the struggles faced by marginalized communities, which were not previously widely acknowledged. Whether that be through social media or in person, lots of important conversations were spurred by those hoping to interrupt the often unknowing complacency people participate in which perpetuates systems that harm marginalized communities. This made it difficult for most people to ignore the weight of the issues faced by Black, Indigenous, and people of color every single day.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, something that struck me was how disproportionately this virus has affected certain groups of people as compared to others. In response to viewing a map showcasing how the virus is concentrated in Black and Indigenous communities, someone asked me, “How can a virus be racist?”
Canada is often praised as a nation that recognizes healthcare as a human right and implements this value through our universal healthcare system, in stark contrast to our American neighbors. However, the term “universal” is used somewhat ambiguously here, as it implies that our healthcare system is equally accessible for all people. In reality, things are not this simple, especially for Indigenous peoples. The systems developed by a settler-colonial state prioritize the needs of settlers, tending to leave behind the marginalized communities they have stolen from for so long. This is evident in the way our healthcare system differentially treats Indigenous peoples, and it is something that urgently needs to be addressed.
The issue is not that the virus itself is racist, but that the system which people rely on to eradicate (or at least mitigate) its effects does not treat all people equally. There is a seriously undermined problem within the fact that the system which maintains healthcare is not equally accessible to all people. Within Canada, this disparity greatly affects Indigenous peoples in particular. This kind of inequality occurs due to barriers that are perpetuated by historical and ongoing legacies of racism and colonialism, which created hierarchies that placed the needs of Indigenous communities below white settlers. Barriers include those such as a lack of healthcare services across geographic regions where Indigenous communities are concentrated. Such barriers are further exacerbated for more rural communities, especially in the north, where remote locations and small population sizes are cited as deterring factors for the recruitment of healthcare workers (National Collaborating Centre for Indigenous Health, 2019).
Many reserves face similar challenges, where a shortage of personnel who practice healthcare creates significant problems for those in need of care. A lack of affordable transportation also prevents Indigenous peoples from being able to travel to access necessary services, something that should not be a requirement in the first place. These impediments to healthcare accessibility result in outcomes such as the likelihood of diagnoses in a later, more dangerous stage of a disease being higher for Indigenous peoples than non-Indigenous peoples, which only reduces health levels and increases mortality rates (National Collaborating Centre for Indigenous Health, 2019).
Additionally, systems developed by a settler-colonial state are generally designed for the benefit of settlers without sufficient input from diverse communities. Indigenous peoples have their own traditional methods of healing that have been successfully practiced for thousands of years, which are overlooked by the current healthcare regime (First Nations Health Authority. 2021). Creating a truly equitable and accessible healthcare system that prioritizes the needs of all individuals, not just those with the most privilege in Canadian society, means expanding beyond a Western outlook to incorporate culturally significant practices when requested.
In 2015, the Canadian government reaffirmed its commitment to achieving reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. However, their follow-through of this commitment has been inadequate and continues to show a blatant disregard for Indigenous lives. Issues such as a lack of access to healthcare lead directly to higher mortality rates as a result of crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic within Indigenous communities, and these issues require immediate rectification in order to save people’s lives. For the ideal of universal healthcare to truly be realized, we need to acknowledge the disparities within our current system that harm so many, and actively push for equitable healthcare access for Indigenous peoples.
National Collaborating Centre for Indigenous Health. (2019). Access to health services as a social determinant of First Nations, Inuit and Métis health. https://www.nccih.ca/docs/determinants/FS-AccessHealthServicesSDOH-2019-EN.pdf
First Nations Health Authority. (2021). Traditional healing.
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