COVID-19 has been disastrous for people throughout the world. Globally, there have been about 6.4 million confirmed cases, with nearly 2 million of those occurring within the United States. Over 100,000 Americans have died from this disease. Certain communities have been hit harder than others: Black and indigenous citizens face the highest rates of infection and death due to the virus. Even after considering alternative explanations, COVID-19’s increased impact on Native Americans is undeniably the result of the American government’s failure to resolve existing issues throughout indigenous communities.
Since the colonization of the Americas, Native Americans have been no stranger to devastating illnesses, and it’s clear that COVID-19 is no exception. On reservations, COVID-19 rates are an average of 4 times higher than the US as a whole. The virus has been particularly detrimental to some specific nations: for every 100,000 people, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has 500 cases; the Ho-Chunk Nation has 800; the Navajo Nation has 1100; the Pueblo of San Felipe has 1400; and the Pueblo of Zia has 3300. The average across the United States is 73.3 per 100,000. In addition, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have likely been hit especially hard as well. Thus, these groups are being severely harmed by this pandemic.
Lack of Infrastructure
Native American communities are widely plagued by infrastructure issues. 58 out of every 1000 Native American households do not have running water—which is nearly 20 times higher than the number of white households without access. In the Navajo Nation, that number is even greater: 1 in 3 residents live without proper plumbing. This lack of plumbing causes a variety of health obstacles – it can make frequent and effective hand-washing more difficult. Additionally, drinking contaminated water can cause illness that would weaken their immune systems, while going to purchase potable water can cause more frequent violations of social distancing.
In addition, many Native Americans lack access to quality healthcare. The Indian Health Service faces severe underfunding: on average, they spend only 59% of the actual cost of care. Far too few clinicians are available. The United States has a legal obligation to provide these services; however, they are far from adequate, and this insufficiency has adverse consequences to Native Americans’ well-being.
Finally, linguistic differences can make it difficult for some indigenous people to receive accurate medical knowledge. This information is often only delivered in English, and certainly not in indigenous languages. Without the advice delivered to much of the rest of the country, non-English-speaking people likely struggle to follow the necessary guidelines and keep themselves safe. By failing to provide this information in a variety of different languages, the US government has not done its part in protecting the health of all Americans.
One could argue that these increased rates of infection could be explained away by other factors, such as cultural norms. Although Native Americans are a diverse group with a large range of traditions, there are a few similarities that a majority share. For example, their households often do not live in nuclear families, which are standard throughout most of the United States, instead having several generations of family members in one home. As a result of having large groups of people live together, more people could be at risk if one family member gets infected. Although this characteristic may have some impact on COVID-19 rates, it’s not a significant enough difference to cause the enormous disparities Native Americans face. Many other communities tend to live in multigenerational households, but they don’t encounter nearly the same health inequalities.
Moreover, many have suggested that Native Americans have some form of increased genetic susceptibility to a variety of diseases. Their argument claims that inherent biological differences could explain the plethora of medical conditions, from smallpox to diabetes, that throughout history have been more severely detrimental to Native American societies. However, there is little evidence to support this argument. These inequalities have existed across all forms of disease, and it seems unlikely that genetics could cause a group to be more prone to nearly every type of medical issue in existence, from infections to addictions.
In order to create a lasting solution to this current struggle, we must cut straight to the core of the systematic injustices behind Native Americans’ persistent health problems. First, the US must provide a thorough and accurate translation of publicly published guidelines in a variety of languages to ensure that more of its citizens will be equipped with the knowledge needed to protect the safety of themselves and those they will come into contact with. Next, the federal government, as well as state governments, should invest in running water on reservations to ensure that these households are able to follow medical guidelines to the full extent. Furthermore, the Indian Health Service requires increased funding and a larger number of clinicians in order to improve the quality of care. The United States must address these systematic issues to mitigate the disastrous effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on Native American communities.