For Indigenous Peoples' Day: When It Comes to COVID-19, Native Americans Are Getting Screwed Over, as Usual

At a September 30 hearing of a panel from the House Appropriations Committee, the CEO of the National Council of Urban Indian Health, Francys Crevier, who is Algonquin, said that when it comes to COVID-19, "The state of affairs in Indian Country remains dire." Currently,  the rates of COVID for "American Indians and Alaska Natives are 3.5 times higher than that of non-Hispanic whites," according to the Centers for Disease Control. And "American Indians die from COVID-19 at nearly 50% higher rates than whites." 

In New Mexico, the rate was even more horrific this past summer: "Native Americans had a COVID-19 mortality rate 18 times higher than Hispanics and 23 times higher than whites," according to that state's Department of Health.  With 11% of the population, Indigenous people in New Mexico made up 53% of those testing positive for COVID. You won't be surprised to hear some in Indian country are comparing this to small pox.

Even those stark statistics are likely undercounting the true number of coronavirus cases and deaths. As Abigail Echo-Hawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation and the director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, has said, "The data is a national disgrace...How can decisions be made in the United States to prevent, intervene, and treat COVID-19, when you can’t even truly tell what populations are most affected?”

From the data we have, we know that the coronavirus has hit Indian country much harder than a great deal of the rest of the United States. The Navajo Nation has a higher death rate than any state, and things got so bad with new cases last month that the entire Navajo Nation has instituted curfews and weekend shutdowns. One Mississippi group of Choctaw had 10% of its 10,000 residents test positive, with 81 deaths. Most of Mississippi's Choctaw live in Neshoba County, and, "despite making up 18 percent of the county’s residents, tribal members have accounted for more than half of the county’s virus cases and about 64 percent of the deaths."

The traditionally underfunded Indian Health Service simply could not handle the demands of the pandemic. "It was absolute panic at first; everyone assumed N95s were going to be forthcoming, and pretty quickly we realized that, holy cow, the tribe doesn’t have the stockpiles they were supposed to have," said the chief medical officer at an Arizona Indian medical center.  The Indian Health Service spends less than half per patient compared to Medicaid patients. It's less than a third of what the federal government spends per Medicare patient. 

The CARES Act contained $8 billion in support for tribal medical care, but (as anyone involved in getting CARES Act funds can tell you) the restrictions in the law make it difficult to spend up front, which is what's desperately needed. "The National Congress of American Indians has asked Congress for $20 billion more in coronavirus relief funds, as well as emergency appropriations with flexible conditions," but even the Democrats' bill only contains an additional $2.3 billion specifically for Native American health services dealing with coronavirus. 

Think of the burden this adds to the lives of Native Americans in their nations. For the Navajo in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, many don't have electricity and a third don't have running water. Think about how this affects the education of the kids living there. Voting was already difficult; now, with voting by mail in places where most people just have P.O. boxes, it's become almost impossible. 

"Tribal leaders have reported to us that their nations, their existing systems of service delivery and infrastructure, are under a great deal of stress and are very close to reaching a breaking point, as they try to seek to maintain the status quo and increase essential government functions in response to COVID-19," that congressional panel was told by Kevin Allis, CEO of the National Congress of American Indians and a member of Potawatomi Community of Wisconsin.

This nation's ongoing failure to respect and assist Indigenous Americans is a disgrace that spans generations, administrations, and political parties in power. And, like with so many other things, coronavirus is revealing the cost for that cruel apathy.