COVID-19 has ravaged Indian Country and financial relief is crucial

COVID-19 has ravaged Indian Country and financial relief is crucial
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As the Trump administration and Congress negotiate another coronavirus relief package, a constituency requiring urgent support is American Indian tribes. While Washington was right in March to allocate $8 billion of CARES Act money to help Native American tribes fund their government services, the relief package was insufficient to address the myriad of needs brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Simply put, Indian Country requires $40 billion to $50 billion in relief to help our nation’s 573 federally recognized tribes that have been devastated by the pandemic. This package is needed to save Native American lives amid an urgent situation that is worsening by the day.

Tragically, the scope of the problem affecting Indian Country is more serious and pressing than many in Washington realize.  

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American Indians are among the most impoverished and marginalized groups in the United States, and they have been hit hard by COVID-19. This is in part because many tribal reservations are located in remote locations without access to basic services.

Native Americans have lower health status and conditions than the general U.S. population because of poverty and inadequate access to health care. They have disproportionately higher rates of obesity, asthma, Type 2 diabetes, chronic liver disease, cirrhosis, chronic lower respiratory diseases and cardiovascular disease such as heart attacks and strokes.

Complicating matters, many tribal communities have large numbers of three high risk groups for COVID-19 — seniors, cancer patients and diabetics — and many tribal communities have multiple generations living in one household.

Tribes’ poor health conditions and outcomes drastically raise Native Americans’ risk of both contracting the virus and suffering severe cases of the disease. These factors and others have contributed to the pandemic ravaging some tribal communities.

As an example, American Indians constitute more than 55 percent of New Mexico’s total coronavirus cases, despite counting for only a tenth of the state’s population. At one point, the Navajo Nation had an infection rate that surpassed New York state’s rate at the height of its outbreak, and Native Americans accounted for more than a third of Wyoming’s cases, despite only being less than 3 percent of the state’s population.

The situation is made worse by the few resources that the Health & Human Services Department-run Indian Health Service has at its disposal. Nationwide, Indian Health Service has only 625 beds, six intensive care unit beds, and a scarcity of ventilators and other needed equipment to care for more than 2.5 million American Indians and Alaska Natives.

A tribal relief fund is crucial to helping tribal health departments ramp up their operations, obtain necessary equipment and medications, as well as share data, conduct surveillance and track the disease as it spreads on reservations. 

Additional coronavirus relief money is needed by tribal governments to address other pressing needs facing many of their communities, such as repairing widespread broken infrastructure, bolstering health services, improving housing conditions, serving the homeless and ensuring access to indoor plumbing, clean water and sanitary living quarters. Each of these services, if properly funded, will go a long way towards helping Native nations fight COVID-19.

These simple steps will bolster tribal governments’ efforts to put in place policies for avoiding overcrowding in homes, enabling effective social distancing, and providing access to more hygienic conditions. They also will help tribes diagnose, quarantine and treat community members infected with COVID-19.  

It bears saying that long-neglected funding for these basic services in Native American communities is long overdue — pandemic or no pandemic. Unfortunately, Washington has a poor track record of living up to its trust commitment to tribes and adequately funding these important services, the Indian Health Service being an all too common poster child.

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Furthermore, additional coronavirus relief for tribes must include assistance to make up for income lost from the closing of casinos and other hospitality entities that help provide the revenue base necessary for funding essential tribal services — education, infrastructure, public safety, fire protection and health, among other functions.

Many tribal government budgets are facing headwinds from their decisions to close casinos in early March, resulting in $997 million in lost wages and a $4.4 billion drop in economic activity. This has curtailed tribal governments’ means to provide essential services during the ongoing coronavirus crisis.  

Allocating the necessary coronavirus aid to tribes is imperative for stemming further spread of COVID-19 in Native American communities across the United States. A failure to do so almost assuredly would contribute to further suffering, economic hardship and loss of life. The federal government must make good on its trust responsibility to Indian Country by securing this badly-needed coronavirus relief and supporting American Indian health.

Deron Marquez, Ph.D., is the co-founder of the Tribal Administration Program at Claremont Graduate University. He served as chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians from 1999 through April 2006.

Ted Gover, Ph.D., is director of the Tribal Administration Program at Claremont Graduate University and a political science professor.