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How COVID-19 is Affecting Indigenous Communities

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

By Melissa del Carmen Gomez

Image via Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

The rise of COVID-19 is not only affecting Indigenous communities within the U.S., but its surge is also influencing Indigenous communities on a global scale. For example, Brazil has more than 11,385 confirmed cases within its Indigenous groups. The White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona has a population of 13,420, in which one out of seven members tested positive for the virus, with just 2,000 cases overall. Furthermore, the Navajo Nation, located in Utah, Arizona, as well as New Mexico, has 8,486 confirmed cases. In this regard, Indigenous leaders from numerous nations are in desperate need of support from the federal government; however, the federal government responds with silence.

Indigenous communities have long been devoid of basic resources, making them especially susceptible to the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal government encourages the alternative of washing your hands to prevent the spread of the virus, but most indigenous communities still lack access to sanitary water. Some citizens of the Navajo Nation, for example, are extremely scarce of this resource. The Navajo reservation is approximately the size of West Virginia, which leaves millions of families vulnerable to the pandemic. One in three Navajo citizens do not have access to running water, thus risking exposure to the virus as they often travel to supermarkets to receive water. The Navajo Nation is a food desert with only thirteen supermarkets, making this awfully difficult for families who live far from these stores to acquire their desired resources.

These health concerns have existed long before the pandemic, yet the federal government does little to nothing to help. For instance, the Seattle Indian Health Board — a Native American health organization — asked for medical aid, but the response from the federal government was to send body bags. Despite authorities claiming this was a mistake, chief research officer Abigail Echo-Hawk believes this action was a message: the government promises help through funds, resources, and supplies, but the promise is never delivered. This manipulation traces back to the beginning of colonization in the U.S., where the federal government would create treaties with tribal nations just for it to be disregarded. “The Navajo Nation is in a crisis with cases, and there are tribes and other Indian organizations across the country that are in similar crises and can use medical supplies and help instead of watching people die,” Echo-Hawk says. “This is a metaphor for what’s happening.”

Cases are rising yet Indigenous people are not included in these statistics, as data is either unavailable or not recorded by ethnicity. When looking at data discussing racial demographics, Indigenous peoples are often categorized in the ‘other’ category, eliminating Indigenous peoples from the data entirely. Even in populous cities such as Los Angeles and New York, Native Americans have not been explicitly included in the data. The issue of racially misclassifying and excluding Indigenous people has been ongoing long before this pandemic. “We are a small population of people because of genocide. No other reason. If you eliminate us in the data, we don’t exist. We don’t exist for the allocation of resources,” says Abigail Echo-Hawk.

However, hard work is happening on the frontlines. Due to the fact that most news sources provide information available only in english, tribal nations have worked diligently to deliver COVID-19 information in Indigenous languages. Numerous tribal nations have organized grassroots and donation drives to provide sufficient supplies for families, elders, and the immunocompromised. Indigenous activists are sharing resources on social media, volunteering to drive medical supplies and food to families, and even gathering donations through Paypal and Venmo.

Image via Matt York/AP

If you want to take action, research is key to finding which tribal nations are affected by this pandemic. Donate to communities. Monetary donations and supply donations are accepted and will go towards resources and helping families. Amplification matters. Share posts that educate others about this issue and spread the word that donations are being accepted. Follow Indigenous leaders, news sites, and activists on social media. Be an ally and raise awareness. Push the federal government to provide support to Indigenous communities, prioritize Indigenous health systems, and keep their promises of funds and aid; for this has long been overdue.

Written by writer Melissa del Carmen Gomez

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