In a March 31 tweet, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called COVID-19 the “great equalizer,” intending to insinuate that anybody – regardless of age, wealth, or race – could potentially contract the virus. While this is technically true, the reality is that certain demographic groups have been disproportionately hit and are more likely to get sick. Far from “equalizing,” COVID-19 has devastated certain communities and demographic groups much more than others, revealing and exacerbating many of society’s deep-seated inequalities. When crisis strikes, oppressed groups have always taken the brunt of it.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States, Native Americans have experienced disproportionately high numbers of cases. This has been most pronounced in the Navajo Nation, a region of over 27,000 miles across Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, and home to 350,000 people. By May, the Navajo Nation recorded more per-capita COVID cases than anywhere else in the US, aside from New York and New Jersey. The rate of infection is 10x higher than that of Arizona, where most of the Navajo territory is situated. Digging a bit deeper, we glean that this devastating issue is the result of a traumatic history of oppression, broken promises, and pervasive inequalities.
The Navajo have had a history of persecution. In 1864, the US government conducted an attempt at ethnic cleansing against the Navajo, in which they forcibly displaced them from their homes in present-day eastern Arizona and made them walk 250-450 miles to Bosque Redondo, in present-day eastern New Mexico. There were even allegations that smallpox blankets were distributed to the Navajo to expedite the devastation. After, Native Americans across the country, including the Navajo, were forced into Indian residential schools, where they were taken from their families and forcibly assimilated. In these schools, which existed as late as 1973, students were highly susceptible to deadly diseases like tuberculosis and measles.
Historically, the Navajo have faced many health problems on a disproportionate scale. For instance, in the 1950s, the uranium industry was booming in the region and many Navajo found profitable employment working in the mines, which supplied much of the government’s uranium stores. However, many of the predominantly Navajo miners developed lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. Today, Native Americans still have higher rates of cancer, diabetes, and heart and respiratory diseases. These underlying conditions make the possibility of contracting COVID-19 even more perilous.
Around one-third of the Navajo Nation is without electricity or running water. Without easy access to running water, basic preventative measures like frequent hand washing is really difficult. Those without running water rely on unregulated wells, which are at risk of contamination from the abandoned uranium mines. The Navajo Nation is also quite remote, and residents often have to travel to larger outside cities like Gallup, New Mexico or Phoenix, Arizona to get basic food and supplies, putting them at risk by coming into contact with large groups of people.
While remote areas have generally not been hit as hard by the pandemic than big cities, it is a common Navajo tradition for large, intergenerational families to live together, often in close quarters. Therefore, proper social distancing isn’t very feasible, and larger amounts of people are put at risk.
A lack of faith in Western medicine and health care providers is deeply entrenched in Navajo society, as intergenerational trauma runs deep. In 1955, the federal Indian Health Service (IHS) was created. The IHS has been historically underfunded, significantly lacking equipment and staff. There are six IHS hospitals on the Navajo Nation, many of which are out of reach of those living in some of the more remote regions.
In late April, the Navajo Nation, in addition to 10 other tribes, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury over a lack of COVID-19 funding. Congress had initially allocated $8 billion from the Coronavirus Relief Fund to assist tribal governments in handling the pandemic. However, the Navajo Nation claimed that a disproportionately high amount of those funds had been allocated to more than 230 Alaska Native Corporations, which are for-profit corporations, often owned by non-Native shareholders. The U.S. District Court ruled in favour of the Navajo Nation, but sufficient attention and funding for the Navajo and other Native tribes across the United States remains inadequate.
Donate to the Honouring Indigenous Peoples COVID-19 Relief Fund to support Indigenous peoples disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Donate here.
This YouTube video discusses the impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous communities from an Indigenous perspective. Watch here.