The Council of the Haida Nation hosted a live webinar on March 30, 2020, with moderator Nika Collison as well as guests Dr. GwaaGanad (Diane Brown), Monica Brown, Billy Yovanovich, Dr. Caroline Walker, and Dr. Gordon Horner. (Zoom screen grab)

‘Focus on prevention’: Haida Nation webinar emphasizes avoidance of a COVID-19 outbreak

Dr. Caroline Walker says prevention is key to avoid “worst-case scenario” of an outbreak on-island

The Council of the Haida Nation hosted a live webinar on March 30, titled Haida Gwaii Talks Coronavirus, with moderator Nika Collison and guests discussing COVID-19 as well as what residents can do to protect themselves and their families.

The guests who participated in the well-viewed webinar were Haida elder and language expert Dr. GwaaGanad (Diane Brown), Monica Brown, health director with the Old Massett health centre and Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) incident command lead, Billy Yovanovich, chief councillor for the Skidegate Band Council and community liaison with the Skidegate health centre EOC, Dr. Caroline Walker, chief of staff at the Northern Haida Gwaii Hospital, and Dr. Gordon Horner, chief of staff at the Haida Gwaii Hospital in Queen Charlotte.

In the first half of the webinar, Collison asked Walker, who has been practising as a family physician in Masset since 2016 and chief of staff since 2019, when she first realized the magnitude of COVID-19.

“To be honest, probably around the same time that everyone else did,” Walker replied, adding that the virus seems to have been underestimated at first because people didn’t realize it would have more significant community spread than SARS or MERS.

“I think that’s why we’re so focused on flattening the curve.”

ALSO READ: Haida Gwaii doctors issue urgent appeal for precaution amid COVID-19 pandemic

Collison followed up with a question about the abilities and limitations of on-island health-care resources.

“On the one hand we have a wonderful opportunity to protect ourselves and work together, and there’s such strong community here … but the other side of being on an island is that you’re on an island, and we’re quite remote, we’re quite isolated,” Walker said. “The reality is that medically, we’re staffed with rural general practitioners, so we’re not ICU doctors, we’re not anesthesiologists who are managing really sick patients on ventilators routinely.”

Walker said her staff is trying their best to get prepared for a possible outbreak, but added that residents “really need to focus on prevention.”

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“Unfortunately, we don’t have the expertise or the equipment to be dealing with multiple, very-sick patients at the same time,” she said. “If the system can cope and I can say the provincial capacity with ventilators and with ICU beds is going to be there, we can cope with that, we can deal with sick patients, we can put them on a ventilator, we can transfer them out. We do that. That’s part of our job.

“The problem becomes if the whole system is overwhelmed by a pandemic and the ventilators are occupied, and the ICU beds are taken, that’s when it gets really scary and that’s the worst-case scenario that we’re really working hard to avoid.”

She added that she thinks a worst-case scenario is avoidable and measures that have been put in place, such as distancing, ferry limitations and flight cancellations, give her hope.

“The leadership that’s been taken has been very strong and very effective, and I think we’ll be grateful for that when we get through this,” she said. “How we get through it, it’s up to us collectively.”

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Collison said working collectively hinges on core values GwaaGanad would talk about, and asked GwaaGanad to educate people on epidemics that Haida Nation has faced in the past, including smallpox.

“Certainly our elders faced … sickness walking amongst us,” GwaaGanad said.

“I thank my ancestors every day for my being here, for what they faced.”

She reminded residents of the importance of having respect for themselves during this difficult time.

“We all have to respect ourselves more than we ever had before … stopping this ever hitting us again by isolation, washing hands,” she said.

Collison then said she felt positive that “we’re on it.”

“We just need to practise that self respect you’re talking about and we’re going to be OK.”

ALSO READ: Haida ‘wisdom-keepers’ receive university’s highest honours

For more information about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, visit

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