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COVID-19 and Native Americans

With the realization that COVID-19 infections have been inequitably distributed, as reflected in the disproportionate number of cases in African American and Latinx communities, health experts predicted a disastrous impact on the more than 5 million people who identify as “American Indian and Alaska Native.”

Pandemics have historically wrought catastrophic outcomes on Native communities. Smallpox and other diseases introduced to North America by Columbus and early explorers and settlers decimated indigenous populations by the millions, and a 2014 study published in American Indian Quarterly suggests that mortality rates from the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic among Native American peoples were four times greater than the general US population.

Approximately half of the individuals who identify as Native American live in cities and are thought to be under-represented in urban areas, as “American Indian/Alaska Native” is not a category consistently used in the collection of racial/ethnic data in urban hospitals. Most of the Native Americans residing outside of urban areas live in just ten states, many on tribal lands where the factors influencing higher rates of illness in urban areas, including widespread poverty and overcrowded housing, are also present. However, a challenge unique to reservation-based Native American populations is a lack of running water in many homes, which inhibits frequent hand-washing and hastens the spread of infection.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Native Americans experience higher rates of chronic illnesses that appear to put individuals at higher risk for severe COVID-19 infections. Specifically, Native Americans are three times more likely to have diabetes and also have higher rates of hypertension, cancer, and heart/cardiovascular disease, all of which are compounded by severe federal funding shortages for the Indian Health Service, which oversees health care for Native Americans.

While this crisis is still in its infancy, it appears certain that the impact of COVID-19 on Native American populations will be outsized, devastating, and not fully realized anytime soon. As of Wednesday, May 20, Native Americans comprised 58% of all positive cases in New Mexico, and as many as 50% of all the people who had died were Native Americans, while Native persons make up about 11% of the population. On the Navajo Nation, though aggressive testing may skew the data, the per capita COVID-19 infection rate is higher than any state in the country and most threatens the community’s elders who maintain the strongest link to the tribe’s traditional ways of life and language.

Exacerbating the impact of the illness is the aforementioned lack of running water and electricity, a paucity of fresh food (there are 13 grocery stores on Navajo tribal lands that are roughly the size of West Virginia), rampant unemployment, and a significant delay (resulting in only partial distribution to date) of some 8 billion federal dollars promised to tribal nations in March.

This article focuses on Native Americans outside of MA because of woefully inadequate data gathering in the Commonwealth. In early April, a coalition of nonprofits, including United American Indians of New England, North American Indian Center of Boston, Mass Peace Action, and the Network for Social Justice, sent a letter to MA legislators who have been supportive of the Indigenous Legislative Agenda. This letter calls for a targeted response to support the 50,000 American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) residents of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, including:

  • the collection and release of ethnic data distinguishing AI/AN status in future COVID case reports;
  • equity in correctional system data to ensure equitable decarceration rates; and
  • an intentional effort for equity and justice for all through funding for community liaisons and outreach specialists to reach AI/AN communities who are disproportionately impacted by the digital divide.

The Network urges our community to reach out to their legislators to ensure equity for Indigenous People in the Commonwealth’s COVID-19 response.

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