By Kelsey Johnson and Julie Gordon
OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada is struggling to contain a COVID-19 outbreak among a highly private religious group that lives in tight-knit colonies and eschews mainstream society for a more traditional agrarian lifestyle.
Three Western Canadian provinces have reported hundreds of new cases of the coronavirus on Hutterite colonies in recent weeks, which have contributed to an uptick in Canada’s COVID-19 curve.
The Hutterites, a small Christian sect, are a key cog in Canada’s food chain, with colonies operating industrial grade farms that produce grains, eggs, meat and vegetables, which are sold to large distributors and at local farmer’s markets.
“This outbreak is quite severe,” Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe told reporters this week, noting that confirmed Hutterite cases in that province could reach 300 to 400 in the coming days, up from 248 on July 24.
Neighboring Manitoba had more than two dozen cases on three colonies as of July 22, though it has since stopped giving the breakdown. Alberta’s Hutterite cases are among the province’s 394 active outbreak-associated cases.
Canada has seen an increase in COVID-19 cases in many regions as stores and public spaces have reopened. The Hutterite outbreak underscores the difficulties that may lie ahead, with some colonies avoiding testing out of fear of broad economic shutdowns and some community leaders disregarding health guidelines.
“There were some Hutterite leaders who… didn’t take it seriously,” said Mary-Ann Kirkby, who grew up on a Hutterite colony in Manitoba and wrote a memoir on her heritage. “And that has led to some of these outbreaks.”
Kirkby added that stigma around the outbreak is also impacting the community.
“This is farmer’s market time and the Hutterite tables are sold out sometimes before the market opens,” she said. “But people now are not buying their produce and calling out to them and that’s really, really tough on them.”
“COVID-19 does not discriminate. This virus can affect any one of us,” Canada’s Chief Medical Officer Theresa Tam told reporters on Tuesday when asked about the Hutterite outbreaks.
Some cases have been linked to local and interprovincial travel. Most colonies are now working closely with public health officials to contain the spread and no farms have been shut down, though some are isolating.
Canada is home to most of the world’s Hutterites, some 35,000 people, who are known for their distinctive clothing. Women typically wear long apron dresses and head coverings, while the men don dark pants held up with suspenders and often wear hats.
Families live in colonies, work together on the community farm, eat their meals in a communal kitchen and attend church together every evening, all close-contact activities that are seen as high risk for spreading COVID-19.
The pandemic has led many colonies to shift to wearing masks, having their meals staggered by households and even holding church services over the intercom, Kirkby said.
Kenny Wollmann, a member of the Hutterian Safety Council COVID-19 Taskforce said that conversations on the crisis are happening, but added, “It’s a challenge when you’re dealing with a life that’s very traditional and ritualized.”
(Reporting by Julie Gordon in Ottawa; Editing by Aurora Ellis)