The Pandemic has brought into focus the great resource inequality that exists for Native Americans in this country. Will we use this opportunity to act?
By Melanie Moyer
The Navajo Nation is the largest reservation of its kind, both in population and size. Home to over 173,000 people and having an acreage comparable to countries such as Ireland, Navajo Nation is also a food, water, and healthcare desert. The reservation is of a construct of American expansion, stemming from the forced removal of the Navajo people—known as Dine—from their homes and relocated to the Navajo Nation as a place to maintain their sovereignty as a people. In return for this forced relocation, the Federal Government once promised funding for resources such as education and healthcare. Though it’s known that the Federal Government has a pattern of not meeting the promises they have made to the Native American population, recent developments with the spread of COVID-19 in the Navajo Nation and other Native reservations have exposed the extent of their neglect. Native communities have been left vulnerable to the pandemic and other disasters of its kind, revealing the institutionalized violence behind resource inequity and inadequate Federal aid.
The CDC reports that on a countrywide scale, those recorded by the census as American Indian or Alaskan Native are three and a half times more likely to contract COVID-19 than those recorded as white. In other words, 594 per 100,000 AI/AN people have been recorded as testing positive for the coronavirus compared to the 169 per 100,000 white people who have tested positive. However, these numbers are drawn from cases that have been reported, and, due to inadequate testing distribution on Native reservations, these numbers are most likely much higher than what is recorded. Beyond studies regarding the general population, The New York Times reports that within the eight counties with the largest population of Native Americans, the rate of known cases is nearly double the national average. Arizona reported that although Native Americans make up six percent of the state’s population, they account for sixteen percent of COVID-19 related deaths. In New Mexico, Native Americans make up forty percent of COVID-19 cases, while only accounting for nine percent of the population. The Navajo Nation has the most cases reported by capita, surpassing both New York and New Jersey over the summer.
To pass these disproportionate numbers off as anything other than the result of institutionalized resource inequity would be to deny the reality of Native populations in America. The health and socioeconomic factors that play into this increased rate of infection can be attributed to historical trauma and racial inequity, for lack of proper funding from the Federal Government has led to Native populations relying more on shared transport, having limited access to resources such as running water, and living in larger households.
Further, many Native American reservations have inadequate access to needs such as health care, nutritious food, and drinking water, contributing to increased underlying health conditions. When it came to following recommended health guidelines for COVID-19 prevention, many in the Navajo Nation couldn't follow stay-at-home orders when much of the resources they relied on were hundreds of miles away. Though it is larger than ten states, the Navajo Nation only has thirteen grocery stores, forcing many to carpool hundreds of miles for food and medicine. Beyond this, preventative measures such as handwashing were unrealistic, for Native American households are nineteen times more likely to lack indoor plumbing than white households are. However, this resource inequity is most destructive in the realm of healthcare, for health systems on Native reservations are drastically underfunded. Combined, all these factors related to resource inequity have made the already vulnerable reservations open to be ravaged by the coronavirus.
Though creating undoable cultural damage and tragic death tolls, the pandemic’s impact on Native reservations has brought to light the deep neglect that has been shown to them. Our country has the opportunity to understand the resource inequities that exist and meaningfully act upon them, but many argue that the response so far is not enough. The US Commission on Civil Rights was prompted by Congressional leaders to examine the health disparities constituted by the pandemic on Native reservations, which concluded that further infrastructure and funding is desperately needed in the interest of preserving the communities that exist on reservations. Further, the CDC reported that adequate health care and public health infrastructure should be provided on Native reservations both in response to the pandemic and to account for the resource inequity that preceded it.
Despite these reports, when it came to the allocation of resources with the CARES Act, tribal communities were granted only $8 billion of the $20 billion requested by over 500 sovereign tribes to stabilize them. Along with this, the CDC is being accused of withholding information regarding the rate of illness among Native Americans, accounting for the hindering of Federal Funds allocated towards them. Thus, the potential for meaningful and adequate change is being avoided, leaving the pattern of resource neglect for Native Americans intact.
Following connections between a large religious festival in early March and coronavirus cases, President Jonathan Nez put weekend curfews and other social distance protocols to prevent further spread. Despite this early preventative action, difficulty surrounding communicating vital information arose due to many on the reservation not having access to the internet and other modes of communication. Weeks later, Doctors Without Borders and UCSF began sending physicians and nurses to meet the dire need of medical resources for the reservation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into focus the great inequities that exist for Native Americans, but this opportunity can be easily lost if we do not escape the pattern of neglect that has led up to immense inequities. There is no excuse for the wealthiest nation on Earth to leave Native reservations without basic medical, dietary, and running water needs, yet current governmental actions prove that further advocacy and meaningful action is necessary.
Melanie Moyer '22,