Indigenous people are paying the price for vaccine thieves

The case of Canadian couple Rodney and Ekaterina Baker, who are charged with taking COVID-19 vaccines intended for Indigenous people, shows that the colonial ‘wasicu’ mindset is not a thing of the past.

Are the deterrents for those caught stealing COVID-19 vaccines intended for other, more vulnerable people strong enough? [Adrian Wyld/Pool via Reuters]

In the language of my people, the Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation), the term commonly used to describe the white man is “wasicu”. A direct translation of the word means, “fat taker”. My ancestors used it to describe the greedy, covetous, selfish behaviour they witnessed in European settlers who invaded our homelands. To them, fat was the most nutrient-rich, energy-dense part of the buffalo that they consumed to subsist. In other words, they saw that settlers stole the best of everything, or “took the fat” for themselves to the detriment of everyone and everything else, from other human beings to Mother Earth.

To the Oceti Sakowin and other Indigenous Nations, avarice was shameful. Those who conducted themselves in such a manner were shunned or cast out because, in their wisdom, the old ones knew that these individuals would sow scarcity, cause division, spread the contagion of craven insatiability, and endanger the existence of the entire community.

Today, folks tend to think that the colonial “wasicu” mindset is a thing of the past. Nay. May I present to you Rodney and Ekaterina Baker?

The former head of a Canadian casino company and his wife, an actress, were recently charged under Yukon Territory’s Civil Emergency Measures Act for chartering a private plane to fly into the tiny community of Beaver Creek to receive COVID-19 vaccines meant for vulnerable Indigenous people who live there.

Among those scheduled to be vaccinated were elders from the White River First Nation, who were selected because they are considered to be at extremely high risk of dying from the coronavirus if they are infected. They also have virtually no access to adequate medical facilities, with only one small clinic there that is staffed with one nurse and a receptionist. A mobile team had to come in to administer the Moderna vaccine.

The couple lied to the staff at the mobile clinic to get their shots, claiming they were local motel workers.

After taking valuable medicine meant for Indigenous elders for themselves, they absconded back to the airport, ready to jet back to their lives of luxury in Vancouver. But the ugliness of their actions does not stop there. According to public health rules, Rodney and Ekaterina were supposed to quarantine for 14 days when arriving in Yukon Territory. They did not, effectively putting the entire remote community of Beaver Creek at risk, as well as Whitehorse, where they had checked into a hotel.

They cannot feign ignorance either. Ekaterina Baker’s Instagram is replete with posts that talk about quarantining and staying home. The couple knew exactly what they were doing and what rules they were breaking.

They were fined 575 Canadian dollars (about $447) each. Since their little scandalous adventure, Rodney Baker resigned as the head of the Great Canadian Gaming Corporation. In 2019, his compensation was 10.6 million Canadian dollars ($8.24m at the current exchange rate). His severance package has not been disclosed. Canadian dollars 575 amount to mere pocket change to these folks, and in my opinion, such a small fine in comparison to Mr Baker’s worth hardly serves as a deterrent to others who may be in a position to emulate his self-serving disregard for the lives of others.

Unfortunately, we are likely to see more reprehensible wasicu behaviour through the course of this pandemic. This was not the first instance, and it will not be the last.

Last spring, another couple from Quebec travelled more than 5,000km (3,107 miles) to Yukon in an attempt to evade the virus while possibly being carriers that could have infected many residents of the isolated territory. They were later escorted out by police.

Just a few days after the Baker fracas, a registered nurse in Philadelphia, in the United States, who works for a vaccine provider there, claimed she saw the company’s CEO take “10-15 doses” of the Pfizer vaccine and leave the facility.

Refusal to prioritise equitable access is also a form of theft. New data reveals that Black and Latino Americans are receiving the COVID-19 vaccine at much lower rates than white Americans, even though they have higher infection and mortality rates.

The tide may be turning, however. Thanks to public outrage, the Baker’s fines were increased to 2,300 Canadian dollars, and after people said the penalty was too insignificant, the Yukon community services minister announced that the couple’s tickets had been stayed. Now they must appear in court and face up to six months in jail. We’ll see if this stiffer punishment actually comes to pass.

As a Native woman living on a reservation in the US, I am experiencing the devastation COVID-19 causes first-hand. Native communities are being hit hard by the virus, at rates three to four times higher than white people. Every week we lose more elders, who carry our rare, ancient languages and are libraries of cultural knowledge. My dad died from COVID-19 just weeks ago. What these medicine thieves are doing is not just morally reprehensible, it is potentially lethal. Such selfishness comes with a body count and Indigenous people are paying the price.

Sometimes white people get angry when they are called “wasicu”, especially when they discover its true meaning. What they fail to realise is being a “wasicu” is not dependent on one’s race or the colour of one’s skin. Anyone can be a “wasicu” because it is a state of being. If settlers do not want to be called “fat takers”, all they must do is change their behaviour, establish consequences for others who do not, and defy the current colonial capitalist systems that depend upon it. We all have the ability to define ourselves and become what we wish. In this case, the survival of humanity depends upon it.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.