Story at a glance
- Multiple cases of the novel coronavirus have been reported on Native American reservations and territories.
- Some Native American communities lack access to basic resources, including food and water, that are vital to fighting the disease.
- At the same time, the closure of casinos means that some tribal governments are losing their primary source of revenue.
In Navajo, the novel coronavirus is called “Dikos Ntsaaígíí-Náhást'éíts'áadah.” Naming the enemy was just the first step.
The Navajo Nation declared a public health state of emergency on March 11, two days before President Trump announced a national state of emergency. Two members of the tribe in the southwest United States have tested positive for COVID-19. They were both from the same region of the territory stretching across parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, but had also recently traveled.
“We call upon our Navajo people to stay home and remain calm to prevent the spread of the virus among our communities,” said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez in a release. “We also ask the public to be vigilant and respectful of first responders, health care workers, and emergency management officials who are responding to these cases. Please continue to pray for these individuals, their families, and all of the people of our Nation as we get through this together.”
A week earlier, Dean Seneca, a member of the Seneca nation who has worked more than 18 years in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Center for State, Tribal, Local and Territorial Support, told Indian Country Today that tribal epidemiology centers did not have the capacity to track the disease.
“We don’t have links with our tribal health departments and/or state health departments in order to share data or real-time incidence, prevalence and any kind of mortality data or information related to this,” he told Indian Country Today. “Our systems are just not in place in order to do good active surveillance.”
There are 574 federally recognized Native American tribes across the United States, some in remote parts of the country with limited access to basic resources. Native Americans are 19 times more likely than white people to lack indoor plumbing, according to a 2019 report. The Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation are food deserts, according to a GoFundMe relief fund organized by Ethel Branch, who was the 11th attorney general of the Navajo Nation.
"These communities also have high numbers of elderly, diabetic, and cancer-afflicted (i.e., high risk) individuals. These communities could be devastated by coronavirus and COVID-19," reads the GoFundMe page, which had raised almost $100,000 on March 19, three days after it was launched. “The need is so great.”
As other tribes now declare emergencies, some are ahead of the curve. The Lummi Nation in Washington state announced two positive cases of COVID-19 in their community on March 17. But the tribe had been preparing for months, Nickolaus Lewis, a member of the Lummi Indian Business Council and chairman of the nonprofit Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board, told the Seattle Times.
“We are leading through the lens of protecting our people and that has enabled us to be very progressive, we are doing things other tribes and communities aren’t yet able to,” he told the Seattle Times. “We knew we needed to get out of the way and let the professionals do their jobs and support our health team.”
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In the past three years, the tribe has doubled the number of doctors serving their population of more than 6,000 to eight. They started gathering medical supplies in February and had 300 tests on hand, the Seattle Times reported. The tribe purchased iPads and Wi-Fi hot spots to allow doctors to check in on residents virtually and organized food distribution points. Anyone who meets the criteria for testing can be seen at a drive-thru site, where a medical tent has been set up outside for hands-on examination.
Not all tribes are as prepared, however. The president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader the tribe, which has declared a state of emergency, did not have access to tests for the novel coronavirus.
"It was brought to my attention that the Indian Health Service here in Pine Ridge does not have the capabilities to properly test and diagnose for the COVID-19," Oglala President Julian Bear Runner told the Argus Leader. "Who knows how long we will be walking with this disease and not be able to properly diagnose that, quarantine and treat those who have been affected."
The Indian Health Service (IHS) says all IHS facilities have access to testing at no cost to individuals, but it does not have "test kits." Patients will submit samples using standard swabs, which are then submitted to outside laboratories for testing.
At the same time, tribes are suffering from economic repercussions of the pandemic. As casinos shut down to stop the spread of COVID-19, tribal governments who depend on the gaming industry for funding are asking for help. The Native American gaming industry has asked for $18 billion in U.S. federal aid, according to Reuters.
The $8.3 billion coronavirus package President Trump signed on March 6 includes about $40 million in funding for Native American efforts to combat the novel coronavirus. But it might be a while before tribal health departments see the money, a spokeswoman for the National Council of Urban Indian Health told NBC News.
"Our biggest concern right now is that there's not really a funding mechanism for the CDC to distribute funds to Indian country," Meredith Raimondi told NBC. "Because of bureaucracy, it can take a while."
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