Tribal leaders across the US gear up to protect their communities as they seek to overcome historical inequality.
Native American reservations across the US face the threat of being disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the US due to inadequate access to healthcare and water.
The Navajo Nation, one of the largest American Indian territories, sits at the intersection between three states: Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, announced that as of Wednesday 488 people have the coronavirus, an increase of 62 cases, and there have been 20 confirmed deaths in total.
Many Indian reservations were created in the 19th Century by the US government which saw Native Americans forcibly moved to different geographical locations or otherwise surrender large swathes of land under duress.
President Jonathan Nez of the Navajo Nation has described the widening crisis as a “matter of life and death”.
The more than five million-strong Native American population throughout the US is at risk because of “historical and geographical factors that have left many American communities without adequate services” says George McGraw CEO of DigDeep, a nonprofit that works to bring running water to marginalised communities in Appalachia and the Navajo Nation territories.
Access to water is an essential component in tackling the coronavirus outbreak. A report published by DigDeep found that Native American communities were a staggering 19 times more likely to lack running water than their white counterparts.
“Rural areas and communities of colour have been left behind too - at least 2.2 million people across all 50 states!” McGraw told TRT World.
“Historically, their access to infrastructure was not prioritised, and geographically, they are often in remote, rural areas where providing that access is more difficult...but not impossible.”
Many Native Americans live in rural areas often many miles away from the nearest health clinic and according to the National Congress of American Indians are more likely to face health complications.
“Because reservations were established on the least desirable land — poor for farming and distant from urban employment opportunities — tribal governments have often had to decide to accept payment in exchange for being repositories for hazardous waste, simply in order to make ends meet,” said Professor of history Camilla Townsend from Rutgers University.
Now the Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation are taking matters into their own hands and fundraising money to protect their communities.
A GoFundMe page has raised more than $400,000 to help “the elderly...the immunocompromised and mobility impaired, single parents, and struggling families by helping them buy groceries, water, health supplies, and necessary items...by engaging volunteers to sew masks for medical workers and first responders on Navajo and Hopi”.
Viral diseases dot Native American history’s dark chapters. Almost 500 years ago, European colonialists brought influenza and smallpox, killing large swathes of native communities.
According to a study, the so-called Spanish flu of 1918 resulted in “mortality rates four times higher than in the wider population” amongst Native Americans.
Many Native American communities live in multigenerational and overcrowded households making the spread of the coronavirus more insidious.
“Coronavirus exacerbates the existing inequalities Native Americans face and brings these underlying issues into clear view,” said McGraw from the DigDeep foundation.
“For instance, with H1N1 [swine flu pandemic] in 2009, American Indians and Alaskan Natives had mortality rates that were four times higher than rates in all other racial and ethnic groups combined. Imagine trying to fight a virus without running water to wash your hands.”
Even at the best of times, Native American communities have had poor or inadequate access to healthcare.
Indian Health Service (IHS), an agency that’s part of the Department of Health and Human Services and provides healthcare to 2.2 million Native Americans has found it challenging to provide the most basic of services while facing a consistent shortfall of doctors.
As a result of funding shortages, the IHS has seen reduced health outcomes for American Indians.
There are already signs that a lack of access to health care is having an impact on Native America communities of the Navajo Nation and despite the best efforts of the Navajo government to encourage its citizens to observe strict social distancing.
“Compare Navajo, at 268 cases per 170,000 people, to all of Southern California, which averages just 500 cases per 1,000,000,” says McGraw about the spread of the coronavirus amongst American Indians.
Frustration amongst native communities is growing that the Trump administration, after initially downplaying the pandemic, is now ignoring Native Americans.
In a Facebook broadcast, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said: “We feel that the United States government once again has ignored or even left out the first residents, the first people, the first citizens of this country: Indigenous people.”
“We have overcome tough times, and we’re utilising our resources to help our people out there.”