How First Nations are using radio in the fight against COVID-19

With broadband access either unreliable or unavailable, communities in the northwest are taking to the airwaves to communicate vital public-health information
By Crystal Hardy Zongwe Binesikwe - Published on Mar 01, 2021
Crystal Hardy Zongwe Binesikwe hosts a weekly community radio show called “Zee’s Place.”

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This story was published in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights.

In March 2020, I was working as a nurse practitioner in three Matawa First Nations communities. The week before the COVID-19 pandemic was announced, I was seeing patients at the walk-in clinic with issues ranging from sore throats to suicidal thoughts. These people were now in lockdown — how could I help from isolation?

In my spare time, I also host a weekly community radio show called Zee’s Place, in which I feature musicians who emphasize social action and unity, with a focus on Indigenous artists. One day, as I sat down to record, I wondered whether I could replace my favourite songs with public-health messages. Broadband access is unreliable or unavailable across much of the region, which means online communications are ineffective. First Nations have for years relied on radio to spread vital information. I saw an opportunity to combine my nursing knowledge with my love of broadcasting to help fight COVID-19.

I worked with Crystal Bell, director of clinical and nursing services at Matawa Health Co-operative, to develop a series of culturally sensitive public-health radio spots and then broadcast them to First Nations communities in northwestern Ontario. “Most communities have radio stations, and some have regular radio programming,” Bell says. “One community had to get their radio up and running for this pandemic, for sharing information.” 

A man filming in The Agenda studio

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The first broadcast covered hand-washing: “It is safe to wash your hands with soap and water in a community under a boil-water advisory or a ‘do not consume’ advisory. However, if you are living in a community with a ‘do not use’ advisory, you should wash your hands with bottled water.”

Other spots tackle subjects such as finding balance during lockdown and speaking to your children about COVID-19. They are still on the air today, and some have been translated into Ojibwe.

In Eabametoong First Nation, 360 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, radio has been the primary means of communication since the 1970s. In early April 2020, when the first of what would be four on-reserve cases was confirmed, it became crucial. 

“It was pretty chaotic. Initially, we weren’t prepared for it. So, actually, we were kind of reacting,” says Bill Shawinimash, community-health representative in the fly-in community of 1,300. He acts as an essential link between members and health-care providers, and monitors the health needs of the community. 

The community had never tested its emergency plan, so Shawinimash used the community radio station to share how things would work. “During that time, there was a lot of fear in the community,” he says. “Because, at the time, people really didn’t understand the information.” He broadcast band-council resolutions, community updates, and important health information — including our radio spots. Residents could also call in to the radio station to ask Shawiminash questions.

In addition to his official duties, Shawinimash is now assisting with canvassing, telehealth services, medication administration, and contact tracing. The resource challenges and systemic obstacles facing Eabametoong First Nation are starting to put the community at risk. “The capacity for the community is not all there,” Shawinimash says. “We need more people.”

Public-health officials are now also preparing for vaccine distribution. Bell says that “chiefs are looking for radio spots on the vaccine.” Spots will address distribution, potential side effects, and safety concerns.

Today, I sit in lockdown, grateful to have access to a safe space with high-quality internet access and my family by my side. But I won’t forget that, in this pandemic, communities in Ontario are forced to get creative, using the radio to share life-and-death information.

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