UNA-NCA Snapshots
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UNA-NCA Snapshots

Native Americans and COVID-19: A Failure in U.S. Governance

By Adina Mobin, UNA-NCA Advocacy Fellow

Navajo Family Social Distancing with Covid-19 Masks outside their home in Monument Valley Arizona || Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the socioeconomic and health disparities of marginalized populations in the United States. In general, Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) are impacted by COVID-19 at higher rates than white communities because BIPOC are overrepresented in essential work and service jobs, which intensifies the risk of exposure when compared to remote work. Furthermore, BIPOC are disproportionately impacted by disease due to racial and ethnic disparities in health care that increase susceptibility to mental and physical health issues, like stress and chronic illness. The United States government’s response to the current public health crisis has been inadequate, further agitating the health inequity present amongst BIPOC communities today. Limited health care funding, research, and data collection serve as evidence that communities of color are discriminated against on a structural level.

500 Years of Genocide

Native Americans are one of the communities most affected by this systematic violence, and they possess a unique historical experience with epidemics in the United States. Over 95% of the Native population was killed between 1492 and 1776 due to European settlement, after colonization introduced measles and chickenpox. Moreover, the European settler-colonialists attempted to eradicate the Native population through forced displacement, enslavement, and starvation, which allowed for fatal diseases to thrive. After the Colonial Era, the federal government threatened the Indigenous population in the United States through policies such as the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

The purpose of this policy was to relocate dozens of tribes, including the Cherokees, Creeks, and Seminoles, to apportioned territories of land outlined by the government. Thousands of Native Americans were forcefully evicted from their homeland and sent to concentration, or labor, camps with inadequate shelter, insufficient food, and no source of clean water. Thousands died as a result of their displacement and exploitation, in addition to exposure to multiple new pathogens. Forced resettlement, combined with weakened health, malnutrition, involuntary sterilization and intergenerational trauma killed somewhere between 95 to 114 million Native Americans over a period of 500 years. However, these human rights violations are rarely regarded as a health crisis that was the direct result of racist government policies.

Maps of the United States demonstrating loss of indigenous-owned lands due to forced relocation between 1784–1972 || David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Persisting Health Disparities

To this day, Native Americans remain at risk of a jarring public health crisis because the government does not adequately assist tribal communities. At the same time, Native Americans bear the highest risk and mortality rates of any minority group from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that among the 23 states that offer racial/ethnic data regarding COVID-19, Native Americans were 3.5 times more likely to contract the disease and 5.3 times more likely to be hospitalized compared to non-Hispanic whites.

In general, limited racial/ethnic data is dangerous because it erases the true toll of COVID-19 on tribes. Non-Hispanic white Americans’ information is vastly reported compared to disadvantaged communities. Indigenous people are grouped into the categories of “data not available” and “other” because Indigenous people are not included in the racial breakdown of COVID-19 data, making it difficult to identify how deeply the Native American population has been affected. Without accurate pandemic data, tribal communities cannot attain quality care based on their infection and mortality data.

Another factor that contributes to the glaring health inequity of Native Americans is access to high-quality health care. The federal government has a legal obligation to provide federally recognized tribes with healthcare. The Indian Health Service, the federally funded agency responsible for delivering tribes with healthcare services, was established to compensate for the government’s historically violent policies that sought to erase Indigenous culture and land. The issue is that because the funds for Indian Health Service are discretionary, so the Indian Health Service provides health care services only to the extent appropriated funding allows.

Today, the Indian Health Service is sorely underfunded by the federal government, making it hard for tribal communities to access high-quality health care during the pandemic. Protective equipment did not reach tribal hospitals for months, and Indigenous health care centers like the Gallup Indian Medical Center, under the jurisdiction of the Indian Health Service, remain understaffed. Despite the size of the agency, which includes over 15,000 employees, there was no permanent leadership until a few months into the pandemic. The underfunded Indian Health Service impacts Native Americans’ ability to access Coronavirus testing and treatment services. Tribal officials were forced to use their government’s own money to make up for the Indian Health Service’s weaknesses, despite the federal government’s “trust responsibility” or legal obligation to fund this agency. Tribal money used to fund these health care services is taken from other social services that the tribal governments are responsible for, like sexual assault response services, child care services, and public safety services.

Moreover, in May of 2020, the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation and the Tulalip Tribes in Washington, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians in Maine, and the Akiak Native Community, Asa’carsarmiut Tribe, and Aleut Community of St. Paul Island in Alaska sued the United States’ Treasury Department for failing to distribute the $8 billion enumerated to 574 federally recognized tribes. The $2.2 trillion CARES Act mandated that tribes receive their funding by April, but the money was not seen until later May. A delay in funding means a delay in vital health care services, testing, and treatments that could save lives.

Source: Kaiser FamilY Foundation

A Time for Action

In their UN/DESA Policy Brief #70: The Impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous Peoples, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs has laid out several policy recommendations for governments and representative institutions, United Nations entities, private sector and NGOs that emphasize the importance of bilateral communication between the federal government and Indigenous peoples’ representative institutions, authorities, and governments. The recommendations also highlight the necessity of obtaining prior and informed consent from Indigenous peoples before crafting policy.

Furthermore, small population racial/ethnic data should be mandated and researched to identify the severity of COVID-19 on these communities. Robust data would allow for better-targeted, context-specific policies. Finally, the federal government needs to better allocate and fund the Indian Health Service in order to lessen the health inequity that Native Americans face. When the government does not provide financial support for the Indian Health Service, it fails to uphold its responsibility to protect the health of the Indigenous population. The economic and human toll that the Coronavirus has taken on Native Americans must be taken seriously and met with equitable and just assistance.

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UNA-NCA Snapshots provides a platform for our community leaders, partners, members & staff to publish op-eds, reviews, and innovative research. The views in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of UNA-NCA. Ready to write? Submit your pitch to shayna@unanca.org.

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