Dr. Cornelia Wieman on anti-Indigenous racism, COVID-19, and toxic drug poisoning

Dr. Wieman and the First Nations Health Authority advocated for Indigenous communities to be prioritized in vaccine distribution

Photo courtesy of SFU

Written by: Jaymee Salisi, News Writer 

Content warning: descriptions of anti-Indigenous racism and brief mention of suicide. 

On May 6, 2021 the Indigenous Reconciliation Committee of the department of psychology hosted “A Year in Public Health: The Collision of Three Public Health Emergencies” over Zoom. 

The event featured acting deputy chief medical officer for the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA), Dr. Cornelia Wieman. She spoke about the toxic drug poisoning crisis, anti-Indigenous racism, and how COVID-19 has influenced these issues.

An increase in toxic drug use as a result of COVID-19 protocols has caused treatment centres, harm reduction services, and overdose prevention services to close. 

Dr. Wieman explained the term “toxic drug supply” is a more accurate description of the crisis than solely referencing opioids. “Not everybody experiences a toxicity related to drug use because of opioids. Nowadays, the toxic drug supply includes stimulants as well as anti-anxiety medications.” 

She also does not associate the word “overdose” with the opioid crisis because the word implies completion or attempt of suicide. She said this association misrepresents those who died from toxic drug supply. Instead, she explained that much of the crisis stems from the closure of treatment centres and similar services.

“There was a very significant, negative, unintentional consequence of COVID-19 colliding with the toxic drug poisoning crisis,” Dr. Wieman said. 

While isolation was implemented to stop the spread of the virus, it resulted in an increase in toxic drug poisoning rates by 93% from 2019 to 2020, said Dr. Weiman. She explained this has led to losing more people to death by toxic drug poisoning than to COVID-19.

According to Dr. Wieman, among the approximate 1.25 million Canadian COVID-19 cases, First Nations communities disproportionately make up 27,000 cases. Canada has seen over 24,000 deaths due to COVID-19 — 318 deaths have been in First Nations communities. 

“We have made an extraordinary effort through vaccination as one of our tools to get us out of this pandemic and especially protect our precious elders [ . . . ] who are our language holders, our knowledge keepers,” Dr. Wieman said. “This is very important to us as First Nations people.”

The FNHA advocated for First Nations communities to receive the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by March 31, 2021. Dr. Wieman recalled Indigenous people were also disproportionately impacted during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic due to limited access to health care from remote communities.

Because of this precedent, Dr. Wieman found it critical to push for the prioritization of Indigenous people in BC’s vaccination process.

She elaborated that Indigenous people commonly live with a high volume of people in small households, making it harder to isolate effectively and placing them at greater risk of infection.

She said people in First Nations communities might wait too long to be tested for COVID-19 or access medical support, as the fear of racism causes reluctance to leave their communities. 

Indigenous people in Cowichan Valley have reported grocery stores and restaurants refusing to serve those associated with or belonging to the Cowichan Nation. 

Dr. Weiman added that if an Indigenous person receives negative treatment from their primary care provider, they may have limited access to other physicians as their communities are often remote. 

As the FHNA begins distributing second doses, Dr. Wieman reported a relationship between Indigenous vaccinations and a decrease in daily COVID-19 cases in First Nations communities. 

Despite the impact of the three public health emergencies, Dr. Wieman encouraged First Nations communities to continue to be resilient.

“Working to eradicate anti-Indigenous racism is an ongoing battle. But I want to highlight, instead of taking a deficit-based approach, we take a strength-based approach [ . . . ] We’re still here. We’re going to get through this.”