How the pandemic has disproportionately affected Indigenous communities

By Jenny Horn

For Native American History Month, we’ll be highlighting some of the issues the Indigenous communities of the United States are dealing with, how we can support them, and how we can learn from them.

It is immensely clear that the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic affects people of all ages, backgrounds, and circumstances alike, yet it would be negligent to assume that the consequences of living within a global pandemic affect all individuals and communities equally. This month and moving forward, it is increasingly essential to recognize that Indigenous peoples and communities have experienced the threats of the pandemic disproportionately and more intensely than their more privileged counterparts, and that it is important to take action and provide more support to these communities as the global pandemic persists into a third year. Below are just some of the primary ways Indigenous peoples have been disproportionately affected, including inadequate access to healthcare, socio economic marginalization and discrimination, lack of access to clean water, and other housing, demographic, and material challenges, as well as some of the tangible ways we can support these vast communities today. 

Inadequate Access to Healthcare

Indigenous communities have historically experienced poor access to basic healthcare, greater rates of both communicable and non-communicable diseases, restricted access to essential services and sanitation, and other key preventative measures, including clean water, disinfectant, and other materials more readily accessible to other populations of people. These inequities and systemic barriers have been exacerbated and amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, building upon pre-existing poor conditions with little relief in sight as the greater U.S. population fails to acknowledge these obstructions and provide aid accordingly. Additionally, experiencing grossly disproportionate rates of malnutrition and pre-existing health conditions, Indigenous peoples are at a greater risk for COVID-19 infections, complications, and “long haul” symptoms, displaying an even greater, deeper effect for Indigenous communities even after the pandemic begins to lull. 

Socio Economic Marginalization & Discrimination

Indigenous peoples experience higher degrees of socioeconomic marginalization and discrimination, and are at disproportionate risk in public health emergenices, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, in part due to factors such as the lack of access to effective monitoring and early-warning systems, and adequate health and social services. Because Indigenous peoples are also nearly three times as likely to live in extreme poverty, they are often more likely to suffer negative outcomes from infectious diseases by not having financial access to resources even when resources may seem readily available. Even when indigenous peoples are able to access healthcare services, they often face stigma and discimrination, deterring them from utilizing these resources and receiving adequate care and attention when they do. 

Lack of Access to Clean Water

As increased hand-washing and sanitization efforts have shown to reduce the spread of COVID-19 amongst all communities, the lack of access to clean water in many largely Indigenous areas has made these practices difficult and expensive. For example, more than 175,000 people live on or near the Navajo Nation reservation, making it the largest tribal nation in the United States. Many residents lack access to clean water for drinking, let alone for frequent hand-washing and sanitizing, and must rely on purchased or donated bottled water. Talking to Democracy Now last April, Navajo activist and artist Emma Robbins exclaimed that “one of the hardest things right now is being able to wash your hands in the Navajo Nation.”

Housing, Demographic, & Material Challenges

Because Indigneous peoples experience higher degrees of socio economic marginalization and discrimination and as labor shortages and shipping delays persist, these communities already faced with food insecurity as a direct result of the loss of their traditional lands and territories confront even more challenges in gaining access to food and other basic goods. This lack of access to materials is thus exacerbated and drives up the cost for essential items. Furthermore, crowded housing conditions also stemming from this loss of land can make it nearly impossible for certain Indigenous communities to stop the spread when an infection prevails within their homes.

Take Action & Provide Support

In support of Indigenous peoples and communities, we can take action by talking about these issues prominently and bringing awareness to these inequities, donating to relevant organizations on funds on the frontlines, and pushing local, state, and federal representatives to provide more tangible support. Several Native American and Indigenous charities in need of support and donations include the Native American Rights Fund, Native Wellness Institute, Warrior Women Project, Sitting Bull College, and of course the First Nations COVID-19 Response Fund.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland signing the SOUTHERN NEVADA PUBLIC LAND MANAGEMENT ACT (SNPLMA) at a virtual signing ceremony. 

PHOTO CREDIT: US Department of the Interior/Tami Heilemann via Flickr.

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