Historic Trauma, Inequality, and Pandemics: The Coronavirus and Native Americans

The coronavirus pandemic has illustrated the strengths and weaknesses of many countries across the world.These range from the strength of national healthcare systems or the weakness of economies to global health crises. The US, with a third of the world’s coronavirus cases, has come under intense scrutiny in how it manages the pandemic. Or not. The US approach has clearly shown the weakness in many areas  of government. From the President promoting dangerous medical practices, people ignoring medical advice to protest lockdowns, to expensive medical costs preventing the most vulnerable from seeking treatments. The virus has not only managed to expose weaknesses in the largest economy in the world, it has exposed the dramatic difference in health outcomes caused by inequality. Many communities of color have been more susceptible to coronavirus due to years of unequal access to basic needs such as water, proper nutrition, and healthcare. One such community deeply affected by the coronavirus is the United States’ indigenous population. 

Photograph: Kristin Murphy/AP: People line up to undergo coronavirus testing (Source)

Native American nations across the country are facing difficult decisions on how to protect their already vulnerable populations. There are 574 federally recognized Native American tribes and an additional 66 that only have state recognition. Not all the United States’ 5 million Native Americans live on reservations, but all face significant socioeconomic and political disadvantages due to unjust treaties, segregation, violence, and suppression by state and federal governments. Studies have shown that historical trauma has led to multigenerational outcomes of poverty and poor health. Native Americans have an unemployment rate that is double the national average and are significantly more likely to not have health insurance, which can be incredibly costly in America’s privatized health system. Only one in four Native Americans have health insurance in comparison to the national average of uninsured being 8.5%. Native Americans are also statistically more likely to have asthma, diabetes, and heart disease.

Arizona has reported that 16% of their Coronavirus related deaths are Native Americans, even though only 6% of the state is Native.

These health and socioeconomic inequalities are being felt keenly in the face of the coronavirus outbreak. Even though many states have left Native Americans off their data breakdowns for coronavirus infections, those that do have seen high rates of infection and death among Native populations. Arizona has reported that 16% of their Coronavirus related deaths are Native Americans, even though only 6% of the state is Native. Likewise, the Navajo Nation has one of the highest Coronavirus outbreak rates with over 2000 cases and over 70 deaths on a reservation with a population of 173,000. This would place the Navajo Nation third in the country for cases per 100,000 if it were considered a state. 

Source: Navajo Times

This severe impact is largely due to persistent inequalities mentioned previously. Poverty is high as the unemployment rate for the Navajo Nation is on average 50% and food deserts are prevalent as there are only 13 grocery stores on the reservation. Additionally, 1 in 3 households do not have running water or electricity. Those without running water rely on wells and springs, however these are also unsafe. This is because of over 1100 Uranium mines, waste piles, and other sites abandoned by the US government on the reservation that continue to pollute the groundwater 

These rates of water use are not only true for the Navajo Nation. The Indian Health Service (IHS), the federally run health program that provides health services across Native reservations, has found that Native Americans are nine times more likely to not have access to safe water. The CDC lists washing your hands as one of the most important methods of preventing the spread of coronavirus. This of course requires consistent access to clean water to accomplish, which many Native Americans clearly don’t have.

Native Americans have also faced disproportionately weak support for basic services. Though Native American Nations are considered sovereign nations they are legally dependent on the United States government to provide health care, education, and other services. An example of this is seen in how the Seattle Indian Health Center requested medical supplies and coronavirus testing kits from state and federal services, but instead received a box of body bags. Whether mistakenly sent or not, lack of medical equipment and services have had a deep impact on the pandemic’s outcomes.

Federally recognized Native American Nations argue for-profit corporations should not be eligible for money that is meant to be designated to First Nation governments as it could pull much needed funds from their own populations.

Lack of funding for the Indian Health Services has affected the ability to track coronavirus cases among Native populations. Most of IHS facilities are not equipped to provide intensive care which results in severe coronavirus patients being transferred to outside hospitals. In outside hospitals, Native Americans are more likely to be miscategorized and listed as the wrong race on records. This has lead to Native American deaths being unreported due to misrecording. It is also estimated that only a third of IHS clinics have been reporting their coronavirus testing numbers. Additionally, IHS electronic record systems have not been replaced since the 1980s which means coronavirus data is being collected manually. This all means that many Nations are unable to know for sure how many members are being affected by coronavirus, an issue which perpetuates the erasure of Native Americans from the data. Not only does this deeply undercount the impact of coronavirus on the Native population, it also makes it harder to combat the spread of the virus. 

Further complicating these problems is a delay in the stimulus funding for Native Nations due to issues over who qualifies to receive it. As part of the federal stimulus package in response to coronavirus, money was to be allocated to Native American Nations. However, a group of Nations are suing the Treasury Department for failing to provide the money. This is because money was allocated to 237 Alaska Native corporations, for-profit businesses that serve Native communities in Alaska. Federally recognized Native American Nations argue for-profit corporations should not be eligible for money that is meant to be designated to First Nation governments as it could pull much needed funds from their own populations. Meanwhile the corporations claim they provide much needed services for Alaska’s indigenous populations and should also receive money. The Trump administration has sided with the Alaska Native corporations, but a federal judge has issued a temporary injunction that prevents the corporations from receiving stimulus money while the case proceeds.  

Native American Nations are working hard to save their people, and finding alternative means of funding through crowdsourcing as they wait for the promised aid from the federal government. Yet, it is important to understand that it is the systemic inequalities that are causing their health outcomes during this pandemic. Minority populations in the United States, who already deal with higher levels of poverty and ill-health, are being disproportionately affected in the coronavirus outbreak across the nation. However, many Native Americans are facing erasure from the data which can further exacerbate already existing inequalities. It is important is important to recognize the impact the coronavirus will have on the United States’ indigenous people if solutions are to be made for the future. 

Source: The Yazzie family posts signs around the community of Leupp reminding the public to stay home and do their part to protect elders and others from the coronavirus.

Kolbi Monasmith is a member of the Oklahoma Cherokee Nation. She has a Bachelor’s in Political Science with concentrations in Entrepreneurship and Human Rights. She has worked for the United States Peace Corps in South Africa, and is a Masters of Development student at IDS.

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