As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the U.S., Indigenous people are particularly vulnerable to this virus. On March 24, Indian Country Today reported there were 40 confirmed cases, 29 of which were on the Navajo Nation reservation. The first person to die of the virus in Oklahoma was a Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma citizen. On April 1, the number of cases in Indian Health Services (IHS) had risen to 276 with 14 confirmed deaths; 214 of these cases are on the Navajo Nation reservation.
The dire living conditions of many Native people and the lack of resources allocated to tribal nations is creating a higher likelihood of COVID-19 contraction rates and deaths. The American Indian and Alaska Native (AI and AN) population has only recently comprised 2 percent of the American population. This growth is a rebound from over 500 years of continual genocide, which has included pandemics and germ warfare. Additionally, 42 percent of AI and AN people are 24 or younger, making the conditions of youth of particular importance to Native nations. Current conditions are bleak and could set tribal nations up for less resources and power for years to come.
Native people are more likely to live in poverty than non-Natives. In 2016, 26.2 percent of Native people were living in poverty while the overall U.S. poverty rate was 14 percent. These numbers can often vary across tribal nations. The Oglala Lakota on the Pine Ridge reservation, for example, have significantly higher poverty rates. Ninety-seven percent of Pine Ridge residents live below the U.S. federal poverty line. The median household income on the reservation ranges between $2,600 and $3,500 per year with a 90 percent unemployment rate. With the exception of Haiti, the Pine Ridge reservation has the lowest life expectancy in the Western hemisphere at 48 years old for men and 52 years old for women.
Within Native communities, there are those that are even more vulnerable. 2LGBTQIA+ tribal citizens are often living in unsafe situations where they must remain closeted. “Sheltering in place” can put them in more danger due to bigotry in the home, said Tavi Hawn (Eastern Band Cherokee descendant), a mental health therapist at Native American Lifelines serving the Native community in Baltimore and Boston. The rates of domestic violence could rise as well.
Indian Country was in a health crisis before COVID-19. AI and AN life expectancy is 4.2 years less than the total U.S. population, and this number is significantly higher on some tribal lands. They also have higher rates of chronic illnesses, disabilities, and mental health disabilities, many of which are the underlying health conditions that make COVID-19 contraction more likely. The diabetes rates are three times the national average. As can be seen with poverty rates and housing, these numbers vary across communities. Native Hawaiians between the ages of 19-35 are over five times as likely to experience diabetes as non‐Hawaiians. In some regions, AI and AN people are twice as likely as the general population to become infected and hospitalized with pneumonia, bronchitis and influenza.
Allis said in the briefing that “Indian Country will be faced with another 10 years of bad census data.” This data is used in a multitude of ways, which include political representation and funding. A lack of accurate census data could continue the cycle of poverty many Native people experience. It could also lead tribes to remain under-prepared for any future pandemics.
This isn’t the first pandemic Indigenous people have faced, and the ancestral knowledge to survive is within tribal nations. Despite the position that Native people are currently in, Hawn wants to remind Native people to “focus on the brilliance of Natives and the things that Natives are always doing to survive.”
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