Native Americans battle coronavirus as poor healthcare and exclusion from public health data make matters worse

More than 5, 200 cases have been confirmed across Indian Country in communities spanning Arizona and Minnesota. The rate of infections in the Navajo Nation is reportedly 18 cases per 1,000 people


                            Native Americans battle coronavirus as poor healthcare and exclusion from public health data make matters worse
(Getty Images)

The US has now almost 1.5 million positive cases of coronavirus and has claimed nearly 89,000 lives. However, one indigenous community is reeling with the crippling effects of the pandemic as decades of poverty, lack of healthcare and pre-existing medical conditions have made them especially susceptible to contracting the virus.

Native Americans across the US are struggling with high rates of infection and the community is losing many of its members. According to the New York Times, more than 5,200 cases have been confirmed across Indian Country in communities spanning Arizona and Minnesota. While the number may seem small compared to major American hotspots like New York or Los Angeles, these numbers represent a significant local mass of affected individuals, which in turn are weighing down incredibly on limited resources at tribal and rural medical centers. 

Navajo Nation

Navajo Indian Reservation, Arizona (Getty Images)

The Navajo Nation is the country's largest Indian reservation, which stretches across three states and has a higher death rate than any other US state, excluding New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Connecticut. According to the Navajo Department of Health, as of May 16, the total confirmed Covid-19 cases amounts to 3,632 with 127 reported fatalities out of the estimated total population of 175,000 Native Americans. The rate of infections is reportedly 18 cases per 1,000 people, which is essentially the highest per capita rate in confirmed cases among all US states. 

The community has been forced into a strict lockdown, accompanied by stringent preventive guidelines including the closure of grocery stores and gas stations, with essential workers being urged to stay at home, until the order is lifted on May 18, at 5 am, per Navajo Times.

The distressing picture

Indian reservations much like the Navajo Nation have been forced to battle the disease, all the while struggling with lack of basic amenities. They are deprived of running water, a robust medical infrastructure, adequate housing facilities, electricity supply and access to information because of the lack of internet services. 

An elderly member of the Navajo Nation receives her monthly water delivery on June 06, 2019 in Thoreau, New Mexico (Getty Images)

Practicing social distancing guidelines also serve as a challenge because of the population density in the reservations and congested living conditions. Furthermore, preventive measures like frequent handwashing are hard to come by because of the shortage of water. On-the-ground reports from over the months show that checkpoints have been installed to enforce curfews and the Arizona National Guard has been delivering protective masks to the communities via airlifts. 

Doctors Without Borders has dispatched a team comprising nine medical helpers to help the Navajo Nation combat the contagion. They are expected to render their health services until June. 

Prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, the Reservations' federal health care systems were largely underfunded. But during the pandemic, a Washington Post report suggested that among South Dakota's Oglala Sioux, only 24 coronavirus tests, six ventilators, and four-beds were available at the Pine Ridge Hospital for a tribe comprising 50,000 Native Americans. 

The vulnerable

Many Native American tribes are especially concerned about their elders, who are extremely vulnerable to the disease. Elders are the lifeline of the community, responsible for keeping the culture alive by passing down language, customs and values to the future generations of the tribe. 

(Getty Images)

Several Native Americans are also vulnerable to contracting the infection because of pre-existing conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other respiratory diseases, per the Indian Health Services.

“When you look at the health disparities in Indian Country — high rates of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, asthma and then you combine that with the overcrowded housing situation where you have a lot of people in homes with an elder population who may be exposed or carriers — this could be like a wildfire on a reservation and get out of control in a heartbeat," said Kevin Allis, the chief executive of the National Congress of American Indians, to Washington Post. "We could get wiped out."

Native Americans experience diabetes three times more than any other race or technical group in the US, a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. They also have the highest rates of asthma. 

Unemployment and economic troubles

Viejas Casino in Alpine California owned and operated by the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians (Wikimedia Commons)

Most members of the tribal community are already subjected to poverty. Some tribes earned their living from casinos but now that revenue has disappeared. According to the New York Times, nearly 500 casinos have ceased operations as a preventive measure against the pandemic. Some Native American Tribes are suing the Treasury Department for access or lack thereof to the billion-dollar coronavirus relief funds. It could be one of the most serious legal battles waged between the Tribal community government and the US in years, per NYT.

Exclusion from coronavirus demographic data

Native American communities are being conveniently left out of the data collected mapping out the impact of the pandemic across the US. This has unequivocally raised concerns of hidden health emergencies in one of the most vulnerable sections of the country's population. A data analysis conducted by the Guardian discovered that 80 percent of state health departments have released some racial demographic data, which have already displayed significant differences in the impact of Covid-19 on the black and Latinx communities.

However, out of all these state-provided data, nearly half did not clearly include Native Americans in the breakdown of the statistics and instead cataloged them under the label 'other'. “By including us in the other category it effectively eliminates us in the data,” said Abigail Echo-Hawk (Pawnee), Director, Urban Indian Health Hoard, and chief research officer, Seattle Indian Health Board to the Guardian.

It was also found that the health departments had not included them in the racial demographic data, even in areas where there are a high number of Native American residents. Despite, a majority of the indigenous population residing in urban areas with a high populace like New York City and Los Angeles, it is has come to light that neither of the cities' demographic data breakdown explicitly includes Native Americans.

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