The erasure of native communities during COVID-19
Illustration Credit: Palli Kheni

The number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States is the highest in the world, having reached over 2.6 million confirmed cases. But there is a forgotten victim of this pandemic: Native American communities.

Indigenous communities in America equate for less than 1% of the country’s population, yet the Navajo Nation alone make up the fifth highest number of coronavirus related deaths. This disproportionality raises the question of why these groups have been so severely impacted by the virus. This typically neglected group has been hard hit by the crisis, but continues to be ignored by both the government and media.

The erasure of indigenous culture has been an ongoing battle between Native Americans and the federal government since the country was founded, with 87% of modern US history textbooks teaching that these groups only existed until 1900. This systemic erasure includes large numbers of Native communities frequently being forced to live in substandard conditions. Exacerbated by a severe lack of government support and funding, this has only worsened as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Many homes and reservations lack basic necessities, such as running water, electricity and hygiene supplies. A startling implication of this, according to the National Congress of American Indians, is that Native groups have a life expectancy of 5.5 years less in comparison to all other U.S. races, with 26.8% living in poverty in 2017 (the poverty rate is 4.6% for America as a whole). The poor standard of life for those living on reservations is a prominent issue that has been ignored by the U.S. Government, causing further deterioration in conditions.

On repeated occasions, the United States Congress has failed to provide enough money for Native American healthcare needs. In 2016, the Indian Health Service budget was set to $4.8 billion: across a population of 3.7 million Native Americans, this resulted in just $1,297 per person. This is significantly lower than the allowance for the federal prison system, where the rate reaches $6,973 per person. As a consequence of this, a large proportion of Native populations are left unable to access basic healthcare needs. Many feel disregarded by the system. 

Margaret Moss, a former worker for the Indian Health Service and member of the Hidatsa tribe, stated in an interview with NPR that many people feel forced to “say they’re fine, but they’re not”. Many in Native American communities will not seek help for illness, as they do not have access to the care that they need. Moss goes on to state that “the strikes against people trying to get care are huge”. The impact of institutionalised negligence on the lives of individuals is disturbing. It should come as no surprise that the poor standards of health care for Native Americans has resulted in disproportionately high coronavirus death rates.

A majority of tribes have been left disadvantaged in preparations for the pandemic, as indigenous groups have been repeatedly excluded from the CDC’s Public Health Emergency Preparation programme (PHEP). This has resulted in a lack of emergency planning within tribal groups, while every other U.S. state has had appropriate funding and schemes put in place. Essential planning includes the ability to mobilise large numbers of staff in the event of a public health crisis, something that would have prevented such an increase in the Native American death toll. 

In fact, due to this lack of government support, tribes such as the Hopi and Navajo Nations have resorted to using GoFundMe campaigns in order to survive the pandemic. The campaigns reached high numbers of contributions from both international and U.S. citizens, exceeding the original goal of $2 million. But it should not be the responsibility of the tribes themselves or individual contributors to fund the response to a global health crisis. This support should be provided by the U.S. Government for all its citizens. 

The overall lack of governmental concern for the position of Native groups throughout this pandemic may be possibly motivated by the historical systemic erasure of indigenous groups. This erasure was exacerbated by the exclusion of Natives from the American census until 1860. Even when included, individual identity was damaged, with a 1902 directive ordering agents to translate “Indian names to English”, if they were “too difficult to pronounce or remember”. This is an example of the federal state using statistics to erase the existence of Native populations. The pandemic is another instance in which this tactic is being used to hide the poor treatment of these communities. 

Even in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, indigenous groups have been neglected from a significant amount of demographics regarding cases and deaths. Only around 80% of health departments included race demographics in coronavirus statistics. Around half labelled Native Americans as ‘other’. The lack of specific identification draws startling similarities to the distortion of census data, enabling us to question whether this is another method of limiting the voices of Native American communities. 

Altering the release of COVID-19 data may allow the U.S. Government to conceal some of the disparities surrounding the impact of the virus on Native groups. This stops the public who might otherwise object to this treatment of US citizens from protesting their marginalisation. The government should be held to account for their COVID-19 response, and for the earlier healthcare decisions that have meant that Native communities were badly prepared.

It is not only issues regarding health that need addressing, but also the Native American economy, which has been damaged further as a result of the virus. Job losses have peaked dramatically within Native communities, with over 500 tribal casinos shut down. Even before the pandemic, the median income for a Native household was around $39,700. This equates to about a third less than the average American household, as this stands at around $57,600, according to a Harvard report

Despite the suffering and economic downturn faced by these groups, communities are coming together to survive the virus and protect their heritage and identities. These nations have overcome many challenges over the course of their history: survival has become second nature. But, citizens should not have to fight for their lives in the midst of a global health crisis due to a lack of government support and acknowledgement.

The impact of COVID-19 on indigenous groups have brought to light a number of issues surrounding cultural inequalities. The pandemic may have been utilised as a method of further eradicating Native American culture, propagating the typical systemic erasure of diversity within America. 

It may be too late to change the statistics emerging from COVID-19, but it is not too late to change attitudes surrounding Native communities. As we emerge from the crisis, it is important that there is finally recognition of the erasure faced by Native communities.