Why are Indigenous Americans Suffering Disproportionately from COVID-19?

As this pandemic continues to overwhelm our nation, it has unveiled and exacerbated the many inequities that marginalized groups endure every day. The Navajo Nation now faces almost 9,000 coronavirus cases, and over 400 people have died. Home to more than 170,000, the Navajo Nation spans over 27,000 square miles in a region that occupies parts of Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that to prevent the spread of coronavirus, everyone should wash their hands frequently and avoid close contact with other people. For those with increased risk of becoming seriously ill such as the elderly, these precautions become a matter of life or death. It has come as no surprise to many, then, that the Navajo Nation faces one of the largest coronavirus outbreaks in the country. These cases and deaths may have resulted from a viral infection, but the underlying cause of this disproportionately large outbreak is the systemic inequalities and injustices that the Navajo, and other indigenous populations, face.

When up to 40% of the population does not have access to running water, following key guidance to prevent the spread of coronavirus — regular hand washing — becomes impossible. Actions of the United States government, from scorched-earth campaigns in the 1800s, to uranium mining during the Cold Water, have seriously limited the supply of safe water in the Navajo Nation. Legal battles with individual states for more water access have dragged on for decades. The injustices of the past and present exacerbate the current crisis.

Access to healthy foods also poses a challenge. Only 13 grocery stores are available to Navajo Nation residents, and many individuals from different households travel together when they go shopping, which increases the opportunity for community spread of coronavirus. Most homes are multi-generational, meaning that vulnerable grandparents are at a higher risk of coming in contact with the virus. The loss of the elderly threatens the persistence of Navajo culture. “We are losing people who are elders and who were carriers of our traditions and culture,” says Emma Robbins, who leads a nonprofit that promotes water access in the Navajo Nation.

As the Navajo Nation has faced one of the highest case counts per capita to date, the existing infrastructure has buckled under the burden of this virus. Out of the four hospitals in Navajo Nation, the largest ICU unit has approximately six beds according to a report conducted by CNN’s Gary Tuchman. In these hospitals, medical professionals are ill-equipped for the overflow in patients and rapid transmission attributed to the coronavirus. These issues are compounded by chronic disease and underfunded health systems, which inevitably lead to disproportionately high numbers of COVID-19 contraction and death.

Shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) have been and continue to be a major issue as cases in the area rise. While the US government has supplied some PPE and ventilators to people living on reservations, it is not an adequate amount to control and contain the virus. One of the indigenous people we have been in contact with shared her story of traveling miles of reservation land attempting to locate PPE that the National Guard dropped from the air, which had inevitably been carried by the wind.

Drive-thru COVID-19 testing in San Juan County. Image via Zak Podmore, The Salt Lake Tribune.

This response from the government has left indigenous populations in America to fend for themselves or rely on the help of people like you and me. At PPE4NYC, we have been working with people living on reservations to supply them with large quantities of PPE. We have shipped to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, and are in the process of producing and sending face shields to the Navajo Nation. While providing PPE has always been our core mission, we hope to bring light to other avenues for you to directly support these communities. The Navajo and Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund helps provide and deliver groceries and other necessities to people on the reservation, particularly “the elderly (especially those raising their grandchildren), the immunocompromised and mobility impaired, single parents, and struggling families.” The Official Navajo Nation COVID-19 Relief Fund is also helping ameliorate the crisis.

To help us continue to provide PPE to the Navajo Nation and other indigenous populations, please consider contributing to our cause at PPE4NYC.org/donate/.

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