The coronavirus pandemic has caused substantial damage to the overall health of the United States. Millions of residents have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and over 146,000 people have died. Disproportionately affected are communities of color who have less access to healthcare and are more exposed to the virus due to being less likely to be able to social distance and quarantine. Aside from weakening the economy, COVID-19 has also revealed just how weak the US healthcare system is. Millions of people across the country are suffering because of the inadequacies of this broken system that lawmakers refuse to fix.
The Native American community, specifically, has been hit especially hard by COVID-19. The pandemic has spread so greatly in Indigenous communities, who have extremely limited access to mainstream US healthcare facilities, that back in May, Doctors Without Borders was dispatched to the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, home to about 170,000 people. The Navajo Nation has had more cases of COVID-19 per capita than any other state in the US. American Indian and Alaska Native people make up 9% of the total population in New Mexico. But, they account for 44% of the total confirmed COVID-19 cases, which is a whopping fourteen times the confirmed case rate of white people in New Mexico. In addition, they constitute 59% of total deaths, which is ten times the mortality rate of white people in New Mexico.
Doctors Without Borders are traditionally sent to conflict zones and war-torn countries around the world during medical disasters. The only other time they have had a presence in the United States was during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The team of nine doctors sent to the Navajo Nation stayed throughout the month of June. However, the fact that the US needed this organization at all to help care for its residents is telling of the state of healthcare and government in this country. COVID-19 has laid bare the egregious medical inequities in the US and, frankly, no population within the US is more affected than the Indigenous population.
Indigenous peoples are historically one of the most marginalized groups in the United States. Since the inception of the Americas, indigenous peoples have been killed in genocides, their lands have been destroyed, defaced, and forcefully taken by Europeans and those of European ancestry, and they’ve been repeatedly stripped of their histories and cultures.
Now, the majority of Native Americans live on reservations. The largest is that of the Navajo Nation, who declared a state of emergency on March 13, 2020. This indigenous population has historically been so severely neglected by the US government that their life expectancy is 5.5 years less than the US all races population life expectancy. They also die at higher rates than other residents of the US in many categories of preventable illnesses, including type two diabetes and liver disease. Meanwhile, the Indian Health Service is consistently underfunded by Congress although they are responsible for providing care to 2.2 million Native Americans across the country. Such low budgets force them to restrict care, and furthermore, this funding doesn’t even come close to matching the benefits of programs like Medicaid, which are already limiting.
Additionally, reservations are rural areas and often remote in the case of smaller tribes with unpaved roads, lack of access to running water, food insecurity, limited access to the internet – which would undeniably help spread new information and resources about the virus as it is an ever developing story, let alone the fact that much of our social and occupational lives and education have become dependent on the internet – and depleted access to medical personnel. To make matters worse, the Navajo Nation suffers from overcrowding, making isolation even more difficult. Each of these factors makes them extremely, and disproportionately, vulnerable to a respiratory virus like COVID-19 which spreads quickly and affects people unpredictably. So far, nearly 9,000 people on the reservation have tested positive for coronavirus and over 400 people have died. Governor Lujan Grisham of New Mexico has stated this virus “could wipe out those tribal nations,” with the President of the United States’ response being “Boy, that’s too bad for the Navajo nation” and essentially calling for less testing.
These atrocities are systemic. These circumstances are intentional. When racial statistics about the effects of COVID-19 were first being released, Indigenous communities were being labeled as “other,” guaranteeing their erasure from the data. Even now, health experts have warned local and state departments that are including Native Americans in demographic data that statisticians are likely to undercount Indigenous COVID-19 patients “due to racial misclassification.” The United States’ history is bloody and brutal when it comes to indigenous populations. Time and time again, the government chooses to marginalize and disenfranchise Native peoples. The fact that they even needed outside help to intervene and provide medical care to their citizens while living in the richest country in the history of the world is nothing short of shameful. It is evident of deeply rooted bigotry in the United States.
Furthermore, Indigenous populations are suffering more because the healthcare system in the United States as a whole is a complete failure. The coronavirus pandemic has made this fact crystal clear. Healthcare is tied to employment, purchased privately, or tied to the Affordable Care Act. Private insurance is also disgracefully expensive and “Obamacare” is horrendous in a number of ways. This kind of healthcare which is tied to employment takes for granted that you have a job that provides the benefit of healthcare, but most of the time, this “benefit” also takes a large chunk out of your paycheck. Unemployment numbers are sky-high right now, again because of coronavirus, yet our government does nothing to make moves toward universal healthcare. The current healthcare system either does not work at all or barely works for the average American.
So if the average American is a middle-class white person for whom the system barely works, how could it possibly work for marginalized communities of color, especially Indigenous communities for which our government and upper-class refuse to provide adequate funding and continue to marginalize by colonizing their land?
A Native American community health center asked county, state, and federal agencies for help in Seattle back in March. Instead of tests, they received body bags. It was a mistaken delivery, but an apt metaphor.
Remember that this violence on Native bodies is global and has a long history. But this violence is not simply historical – it is alive right now. This violence endures, it is resilient.
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