Coronavirus — and red tape — are costing lives in Indian Country
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The coronavirus pandemic has upended the daily lives of most Americans in ways we have never imagined. For Indian Country, this crisis has shined a bright light on problems that have long existed – problems that not only make American Indian and Alaska Native communities particularly vulnerable to a health crisis of this scale, but are as old as the United States itself. It has laid bare the ways the United States has consistently failed its trust responsibility to tribes and Native people by chronically underfunding essential programs including health, housing, and economic development.

Now more than ever, Native people are suffering the consequences of that systematic neglect.

American Indian and Alaska Natives are particularly at risk to the coronavirus due to the high rate of underlying health issues in the communities. These include diabetes as well as heart and respiratory disease. This, combined with a lack of resources, trained staff, and necessary funding, ensure American Indian and Alaska Native people will continue to be hit hard with little ability to properly treat and control the spread of the coronavirus.

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The United States has an existing federal trust and treaty responsibility to tribes. This obligation includes providing health care to American Indian and Alaska Native people through the Indian Health Service (IHS), tribal, and urban Indian health facilities. The health care needs of Indian Country continue to go unmet due to inadequate and short-term funding levels. IHS hospitals, among the country’s oldest, have repeatedly failed to meet the most basic patient needs and health care standards. These facilities, perennially understaffed and overburdened, are now forced to deal with a pandemic that’s overwhelming even the country’s best hospitals.

In addition to inadequate health care, insufficient resources in other areas of Indian Country are making it difficult for tribes to prevent the spread of COVID-19, even when tribes implement stay at home orders. Where there is no access to clean water to wash hands, an inability to properly practice social distancing due to overcrowding in homes, and limited internet access to receive the latest pertinent information, there is little chance in combating a pandemic already ravaging communities with all those advantages.

So what’s clear is Native America is not standing on equal ground. We are starting from a place of more than 500 years of oppression. We are set up to fail.

But there is another important Indian Country element at risk: our elders and traditional values. With older Americans and those with compromised immune systems most at risk for serious coronavirus complications, we fear for our elders. They are often the carriers of our languages and cultural traditions as they practice and maintain them. We are also acutely aware of the isolation that comes with the practice social distancing, which goes against our belief in the strength and importance of community living, especially during such difficult times. This virus, aided by centuries of systematic oppression, feels as if it is attacking us from all sides. But we have also raised our collective voice to call attention to our needs and our rights as indigenous people.

Tribes and Indian health organizations have – in theory - received emergency funding in the first three coronavirus stimulus packages. However, most tribes have yet to receive any funding. There is currently no mechanism to distribute funds from the CDC to IHS and Indian health organizations. This has resulted in a dangerous delay in tribes’ ability to take action and provide care for their community.

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Congress must make it a priority for tribes to be on par with state and local governments. This will remove many bureaucratic hurdles to receiving necessary resources and funding.

Most importantly, what Indian Country needs at this time is maximum flexibility to determine how those funds are to be used. As sovereign nations, tribes are in the best position to determine what is right for their people. In a crisis, the federal government must do its best to aid, rather than hinder, those rights.

Kerri Colfer manages the Native American Advocacy Program, lobbying on legislation that affects Native communities. Kerri is a member of the Tlingit tribe of Southeast Alaska.