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The Impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous Communities

Writer: Nayah Patel

Several epidemics have left devastating impacts on Indigenous communities for centuries, including diseases brought over by European colonizers to the Americas in the early 1500s. The Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is posing a similar, if not more menacing threat to Indigenous communities in the United States and around the world.

The Navajo Nation, located in the southwestern United States, is struggling with disproportionately high COVID-19 infection rates. As of May 18, 2020, the Navajo Nation had a COVID-19 infection rate of 2,304.41 cases per 100,000 people. On the same date, the state of New York had an infection rate of 1,806 cases per 100,000 people.

According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, the infection rate per 100,000 people is 2,019.5 As of 2019, the population of Arizona is estimated to be over 7 million people. The infection rate for the Navajo Nation is significantly higher than the infection rate of the state of Arizona, despite the Navajo Nation having a smaller population.

In an interview with TIME, Eric Freeland, a member of the Navajo Nation, explained that the Navajo Nation has faced severe epidemics in the past, but COVID-19 is “the worst case scenario.”

In addition to challenges with COVID-19, the nation already faces other obstacles, such as lack of access to necessities. According to NPR, “About 10% of Navajos on the reservation live without electricity, and as much as 40% of them have to haul their water and use outhouses.”

Jonathan Nez, the president of the Navajo Nation, stated that the Navajo Nation has received “little federal assistance” as this pandemic persists.

The Navajo Nation is not the only Indigenous community that has been severely impacted by COVID-19. Indigenous communities in Canada, Brazil and Australia are at risk of higher infection rates from this pandemic.

In Brazil, there are a multitude of Indigenous peoples that live near the Amazon, such as the Kanamari Indigenous community or the Yanomami community. COVID-19 has managed to reach these communities, infecting more than 15,000 people. Workers of the federal Indigenous health service were infected, and are thought to have introduced the virus to these Indigenous communities.

“Working without adequate protective equipment or access to enough tests, these workers may have inadvertently endangered the very community they were trying to help, medical workers and Indigenous leaders said,” according to the New York Times.

Doctor and anthropologist, Luiza Garnelo, expressed concerns about the impact of poverty and lack of basic medical care on treating and controlling the spread of COVID-19.

“The pandemic had exposed the defenselessness of communities that have already been grappling with substandard medical care, poverty and often violent land invasions,” Garnelo said. “Long before the epidemic hit, investment in Indigenous health care was insufficient and the resources that are available were not harnessed in a way that enabled an effective response to the epidemic.”

Combined with lack of access to proper health services, COVID-19 will impact Indigenous communities at a higher rate, and a contributing factor could be a lack of federal assistance.

Introduced contagious infectious diseases have already caused a serious health problem among Indigenous peoples already due to the high prevalence of such diseases and poor health services. “Coronavirus would further aggravate this situation,” said Beatriz Huertas, a Peruvian anthropologist.

An example that could be applied to this situation is the rates of infection in Indigenous communities from the influenza and H1N1 pandemics. Indigenous peoples in New Zealand, Australia and Canada struggled with devastating infection rates.

Mortality from influenza and H1N1 was between four and seven times higher in Indigenous populations,” according to Martín de Dios, an affiliate researcher at the Center for Studies for Human Development of Universidad de San Andrés. Additionally, de Dios explained factors that contributed to mortality rates such as lack of access to quality sanitation and medical care, as well as overcrowding.

Without adequate access to necessities such as water and medical care, Indigenous communities around the world are at significant risk of infection for COVID-19. Without federal assistance or improvement of resources, Indigenous communities will continue to struggle at significantly higher rates than other communities. If action is not taken by the federal government soon to provide basic necessities(water, food, medical care), COVID-19 will further endanger Indigenous populations in this country and continue to put them at greater risk. It is imperative that national governments of the United States and other countries such as Brazil take action to ensure the safety of Indigenous communities.

What you can do to help:

There are several ways to learn more about this issue and to continue to raise awareness. Continuing to research and educate yourself on this topic is vital and this can be done by keeping up with the news, and diversifying the platforms from which you get your news. Even including local news platforms can be helpful. For example, KJZZ can be a great first resource if you are looking to become more educated about Indigenouscommunities in Arizona. Raising awareness could be as simple as posting about issues on social media or amplifying voices that may not always be heard. Additionally, there are dozens of funds and ways to donate to these causes, if you are able to contribute financially.

  • Pueblo Relief Fund: This fund was created by the All Pueblo Council of Governors(APCG) and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (IPCC), and works to improve access to disinfecting supplies, medical equipment and food distribution for the 20 Pueblo Nations.

  • COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund: Created by the First Nations Development Institute, this fund will provide necessary resources for “American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian community emergency needs related to the COVID-19 pandemic to minimize the risk of Native communities becoming collateral damage.”

  • Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund: This fund is almost to its goal of $7 million! Started by tribal members of the Navajo and Hopi Nations, this fund will help to support families of these tribes by providing necessities such as hand sanitizer, water, groceries and various medical supplies to high risk individuals.


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