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COVID-19's Impact on Indigenous Communities

By Tanveer Kaur 23

The Indigenous population of the US is more susceptible to COVID-19 (Photo Credit: MedPage Today)
The Indigenous population of the US is more susceptible to COVID-19 (Photo Credit: MedPage Today)

As a pandemic rages through the United States at a catastrophic rate, how are the Indigenous handling the pandemic?

There are 574 federally recognized tribes, of which 245 operate casinos employing about “1.1 million people,” of whom 915,000 are not Native Americans. For some tribes, casinos are economic anchors. Along with other types of businesses that operate in person with their consumers, casinos were mandated to close nationwide early in March. The closures led to an estimated loss of about $4.4 billion.

Worth $2 trillion, the CARES Act granted the Indigenous governments about $8 billion to help combat the virus—a comparatively low figure when compared to other parts of the bill. For example, colleges and universities were granted a total of $14 billion despite large endowments and a lack of necessity of the aid that reservations would consider indispensable. “Native American tribes are having a disproportionate health effect that is highly problematic, and they’re having a disproportionate impact on the revenues that can be used to take on the health crisis,” said Henson. A lecturer at Harvard's field research class “Native Americans in the 21st Century: Nation Building II.” Unlike state and local governments, tribes can not generate adequate funds to pay for many everyday operations under normal circumstances.

Tribal business being halted means that the Tribal government can not fund essential services like “health clinics, schools, grocery stores,” among others. Additionally, as tribal economies stagnate, already impoverished residents become unable to earn and spend money.

According to the “Indian Health Service,” there are 366,761 positive cases as of August 12, 2020. The biggest outbreak, with 10,876 cases, occurred within the Navajo Nation. However, it’s important to note that tribal nations are not required to disclose testing statistics; according to an Indian Health Service spokesperson, just under half of tribal health centers and 61 percent of urban health services treating Native Americans have disclosed such data. Because Native Americans are more likely to suffer from preexisting conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and others, they are statistically more susceptible to the virus than the average American. The problem of limited health services, broken infrastructure, and higher than average rate of immuno-compromising illnesses put the Indigenous at higher risk.

Structural inequalities born out of the U.S. government’s treaty-violating, trust-abrogating policy decisions have caused the disproportionate COVID-19 crisis in reservations across the country. Test kits and equipment are yet to be provided. Currently, statistics would suggest that the federal government’s treatment of tribal nations during the COVID-19 pandemic has been disproportionately weak and has resulted in preventable deaths, preventable cases, and a dire crisis on reservations across the country.


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