A uOttawa learner’s experience amid water contamination crisis in Iqaluit
Posted on Thursday, October 28, 2021
By David McFadden
Shortly after public health authorities alerted inhabitants of Canada’s northernmost capital not to consume any tap water because of fuel chemical contamination, Dr. Yipeng Ge discovered firsthand just how heavy drinking water can be when you’ve got to lug it yourself across punishing terrain.
“Just filling two jugs of water from the river and carrying it back up this very steep hill—it’s a difficult experience,” says Dr. Ge, a graduate of the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine’s MD class of 2020 and now a medical resident there.
Like other people in Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut that was put under a state of emergency on October 12 due to hydrocarbons tainting the water supply, Dr. Ge had to boil water from the freezing Sylvia Grinnell River for a safe drinking source amid the early days of the contamination crisis.
Dr. Ge has been getting a crash course in the multidimensional inequalities of life in a majority-Indigenous community in Canada’s North, a vast area that makes up roughly 40 percent of the country’s total area. With his uOttawa training, he’s viewing the crisis through a public and global health lens, where a physician can take on the role of both care provider and advocate for health equity and social justice.
“The really interesting thing about this water crisis is that it’s not an isolated incident. It’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the infrastructure gaps here in the North,” he says.
It’s precisely the kind of testing ground that drew Dr. Ge to the Faculty of Medicine in the first place. He became interested in a career in medicine after learning about health inequities affecting Indigenous communities.
Now, he’s spending two months doing rotations at the Qikiqtani General Hospital in Iqaluit, a tiny capital of 8,000 people, over half of whom are Inuit. It’s part of his five-year residency program in public health and preventive medicine including family medicine at uOttawa and its affiliated hospitals and public health agencies.
Like other resident physicians, Dr. Ge is now honing his skills in his chosen discipline. He says it’s been an “honor and a privilege” learning and working in Iqaluit during this intense situation, seeing how community members have banded together and looked out for vulnerable neighbours.
“Everyone’s in it for the collective well-being,” he says.
At the Qikiqtani General Hospital, the operating room was forced to shutter because instruments were impossible to sterilize without clean water. It’s the sole hospital in the Baffin Region, an area of over one million square kilometres.
“When you have to cancel all surgeries it’s a pretty bad situation,” he says. “It’s not a level of care that I think people would accept in the south but exists right now because of the water crisis.”
After checking with uOttawa leadership, Dr. Ge used his social media accounts to highlight aspects of the crisis. He’s recently been featured on the CBC and quoted in The Washington Post. He says being a resource for journalists—and therefore the public—is something he takes seriously.
“It is an important skill for public health physicians to be able to deliver these kinds of messages,” he says.
While the unfolding water crisis in Iqaluit has received national attention, supply problems and a dismal lack of drinking water infrastructure are hardly new problems for Inuit communities. Although the Canadian government vowed to eradicate all long-term drinking water advisories in First Nation communities by a March 2021 deadline, the problem only persists.
And Dr. Ge notes that reliable access to safe drinking water is hardly the only problem. Many communities still lack access to adequate health care while facing chronic food and housing insecurity, among other inequities.
“This experience has really cemented my understanding that I chose the right path for myself,” he says, “and why these issues matter so much.”
All photo credits: Dr. Yipeng Ge
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