New president, Congress must help Indian Country fight coronavirus

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Among the many imperatives deserving of attention from the coming Biden administration and new Congress is the need to provide coronavirus relief to Native Americans who have suffered disproportionately from COVID-19. As the pandemic continues throughout the U.S., existing CARES Act funding that had been appropriated for tribes has become tied up in various litigation and red tape, preventing badly needed aid from reaching people.   

Since spring, the Trump administration and Congress have yet to agree on and pass new coronavirus relief. This unfortunate reality makes it crucial for tribal governments to raise awareness among both President-elect Biden’s team and the 117th Congress about the dire situation in Indian Country. 

Although Washington was correct in March to allocate $8 billion to help Native Nations fund their governments, the relief package was inadequate to meet the scope of the tragedy brought about by the pandemic. Additional long-term assistance is required.  

The House’s proposed Heroes Act allocates $20 billion for tribes, but this bill has not passed into law and likely would be insufficient, given the scope of the crisis. Indian Country urgently requires $40 billion to $50 billion in relief to help our nation’s 573 federally recognized tribes that have been devastated by the pandemic.  

The challenges posed by COVID-19 to Native Americans are more serious and pressing than many realize, and Biden and Congress must be made aware of the difficulties that Tribal communities grapple with, including:   

  • American Indians are among the most impoverished and marginalized groups in the United States, and they have been hit hard by COVID-19. 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 higher rates of obesity, asthma, diabetes, chronic liver disease, cirrhosis, chronic lower respiratory diseases and cardiovascular disease. 
  • Poor health conditions and outcomes drastically raise Native Americans’ risk of contracting the virus and suffering severe cases of the disease.   
  • 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.  
  • Substandard infrastructure on Native American reservations has hindered tribes’ ability to fight the virus. Poor sanitation, lack of access to broadband internet, electricity problems and shoddy health care systems have contributed to unacceptably high infection and death rates.   
  • Red tape and bureaucratic delays have damaged Indian Country’s ability to protect tribal citizens from COVID-19. It simply takes too long for tribal governments to get approval from Washington for needed infrastructure improvement projects; most applications require a wait time of one to two years. This obstacle must be rectified, pandemic or no pandemic.  
  • The Indian Health Service has a lack of basic resources. Nationwide, it has only 625 beds, six intensive care unit beds and a scarcity of 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 devices and medications, and track the disease on reservations. 
  • Additional coronavirus relief money would help tribal governments address other pressing needs, such as 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.

Each new administration and Congress have newcomers in important positions of power, so it is vital that tribal nations educate new officeholders and their staffs about the tragic history of how Washington often fails to meet its legal and moral responsibility to support tribal economic and social development. Sadly, Washington has a poor track record of living up to its trust commitment to tribes and adequately funding these important services. 

Lastly, additional coronavirus relief must include assistance to make up for tribal income lost from the closing of casinos and other hospitality establishments that help fund essential tribal services such as education, infrastructure, public safety, fire protection and health, among other functions. Several tribal government budgets continue to face 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.  

While the president and Congress have many important responsibilities as they assume office, it is essential that the federal government appropriate the necessary coronavirus aid to tribes for fighting COVID-19 and protecting livelihoods in Indian Country. A failure to do so will contribute to prolonged suffering, economic hardship and loss of life. Washington must make good on its trust responsibility to Native Nations by securing this badly-needed coronavirus relief and supporting American Indian health. 

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

Tags coronavirus relief aid COVID-19 Indian Country Native Americans

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