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Native Americans suffering highest COVID-19 rates (second only to New York City); with high rates of chronic medical conditions and no running water, death follows close behind


picture by DarkWorkX courtesy of

I chose the picture for this blog post because it takes us back to the first contact between Europeans and Native Americans.  This contact unintentionally set off epidemics of influenza, smallpox, hepatitis, and other diseases that wiped out up to 90-95% of the population of the Americas.  These epidemics occurred even before the Spanish conquest.  The indigenous peoples had no immunity and weak inherent resistance to these diseases (due to a relative lack of genetic diversity) and almost all of them died as a result.  Estimates of the native population of the Americas before Columbus run to roughly 100 million people– of which 4.5 million in the US claim ancestry today.  (Sorry, you’ll have to look up the references to this information yourself; I suggest you begin with the book “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” by Charles C Mann.  “Guns, Germs, and Steel” also has information about the infections that caused this near-extinction.)

Doctors Without Borders has sent medical help to the Navajo nation to assist in treatment of COVID-19 patients at the overwhelmed hospitals there, according to a piece published May 12 on WTHR (Indiana) and attributed to the Associated Press.  This organization, which normally helps at locations outside the US during medical emergencies, has been dispatched to the hardest-hit site in New Mexico.

According to the article, the virus was seeded in a religious service at the remote Navajo reservation by a man who had been to a basketball tournament in Tucson, Arizona and then returned to his homeland.  He attended a service at the “Chilchinbeto Church of the Nazarene” and passed the infection on to locals there.  Since mid-March, the virus has spread everywhere, and these numbers are surely an undercount due to lack of testing:

With roughly 175,000 people on the reservation, which straddles Arizona, New Mexico and a small corner of Utah, the Navajo Nation has seen 3,122 cases – a rate of nearly 18 cases per 1,000 people. At least 100 people have died.

Once started, the virus spread rapidly among households on the reservation, where a third of the houses have no running water.  The precious liquid is stored in tanks that are refilled sporadically by truck.  Washing one’s hands, much less taking baths, is a luxury that is rationed.  Large families live together in tiny houses that become hotbeds for virus transmission once seeded.

Another story, from “New Mexico in Depth” dated May 11, states that Native Americans make up 50% of the deaths (and 57% of confirmed cases, according to the NYT) in that state as compared to 11% of the total population.  The following story discusses the suicide rate among the same population, which is double that of non-natives.

People who live on these reservations all over America are disproportionately poor and suffer from “co-morbid” conditions like obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and alcoholism.  Access to health care and medical treatment is critically limited, mostly to clinics run by the  Indian Health Service (their coronavirus statistics page is here, showing 5,467 positive tests of a total 57,252 tested).  This is a seriously underfunded part of the federal government’s Native American treaty obligations going back to the establishment of the United States.  The level of response to this crisis may be understood from the title of this NBC story: “… health center asked for [coronavirus] supplies.  It got body bags…”

Indian reservations obtain most of their money from running casinos, which have been established across the US over the last thirty years as the federal government further limited its already weak funding for Native American internment.  Nearly 500 casinos, according to this NYT story, have been shut down completely since the pandemic struck.  These casinos had been creating $17.7 billion a year in tax revenues in 2019.  40% of reservations operate casinos.

The unemployment rate on reservations has always been greater than 50%, and according to a private communication from a Jesuit who worked there, approaches 80%– while 70% of casino employees are not natives (thus, the burden of casino closings falls upon local whites even more than on natives).

The NYT story also discusses the delays in disbursement of $8 billion which was authorized by Congress in aid to Native American reservations.  The money was included in relief bills passed over a month ago, but it has been delayed by problems with the applications for payment.  Alaskan natives, who depend upon oil leases for much of their revenue, were included in the relief payments.  Political appointments to the administration’s team running the Indian agencies have been accused of routing money to corporations with which they have relationships.

Meanwhile, the Republican governor of South Dakota has demanded that checkpoints at the entrances to reservations there be removed.  Tribal leaders have refused, citing the threats from outsiders.  There is little that a checkpoint can do to stop the virus; the sites are primarily political statements that hearken back to the Wounded Knee demonstrators of the 1970’s.

The threat to Native American life is real and overwhelming.  The NYT article compares it to the demise of the buffalo in the late 1800’s, which forced indigenous peoples to move to reservations (run more like internment camps) and made them dependent on distribution of cattle meat by the federal government.

The extreme threat to Native American survival compares well with the threat that this pandemic poses to poor people.  Those people who were well-off and able to “shelter in place” with sufficient food and other resources will experience this virus as merely a “damned nuisance”.  The people who were already on the edge will be tipped over into the abyss.


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