Native Communities Disproportionately Affected by COVID-19 Pandemic

NEA member Leslie Crow lives in South Dakota and is Ihanktonwan/Hunkpati/Sicangu Sioux. Photo by Moses Mitchell.

The virus has already hit the Navajo Nation especially hard, with more than 830 cases and 30 deaths as of April 21.

As the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to rise across the United States, the pandemic is hitting some tribal communities especially hard, underscoring existing health disparities, crowded housing conditions and water access issues that health experts fear could facilitate a devastating spread of the virus among Native Americans.

The virus has already hit the Navajo Nation especially hard, with more than 830 cases and 30 deaths as of April 21. In New Mexico, where Native Americans now make up more than 30 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases, two pueblos of the Zuni Nation have some of the highest infection rates in the United States.

For tribal communities, the legacy of colonization – including racism, a systemic undermining of indigenous traditions, broken treaties, lack of federal government support, and the weakening of self-reliance regarding food, water and housing – casts a long shadow, leaving many particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

Many tribal governments now face unique challenges during the pandemic, including:

  • Lack of access to clean water
    More than 175,000 people live on or near the Navajo Nation reservation, making it the largest tribal nation in the United States. Many residents lack access to clean water for drinking, let alone for frequent hand-washing, and must rely on purchased bottled water. “One of the hardest things right now is being able to wash your hands in the Navajo Nation,” Navajo activist and artist Emma Robbins told Democracy Now in April.
  • Navajo Nation Council Chambers, Window Rock, AZ. Photo by William Nakai.

    A higher risk of COVID-19 complications
    Native Americans already suffer higher rates of disease and ailments that put them at risk of serious COVID-19 infections, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Even before the pandemic, the life expectancy of Native Americans in some U.S. states was 20 years shorter than the national average. Oglala Lakota County in the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota has the lowest average life expectancy among all U.S. counties – 66 years.

  • Inadequate access to health care
    The Indian Health Service is a federal agency founded 65 years ago that serves 2.6 million people who are members of 573 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes. For decades, the agency has faced sustained criticism about mismanagement and underfunding. A 2019 report by the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services identified major deficiencies in management and policies that led to severe quality and safety problems. In addition, many Native Americans live in rural areas, with relatively few health care providers. Given that COVID-19 has yet to hit many rural communities, public health experts fear the worst is yet to come.
  • Housing and demographic challenges
    The pandemic is also underscoring a severe housing crisis in many tribal communities. Due to a lack of affordable housing, two or three families, often with multigenerational households, may share small homes, which makes social distancing even more difficult. “Those kinds of living conditions, when you introduce a virus like this, could be catastrophic,” Kevin Allis, the CEO of the National Congress of American Indians, told Wyoming Public Radio in early April.

Taking action to support Native American communities during the COVID-19 pandemic

Native American activists, including educators, are mobilizing to collect and distribute resources to frontline Native organizations working to address resource gaps and help those highly vulnerable to the virus. In addition, Senate Democrats, in particular Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (NY) and Sen. Tom Udall (NM), have worked hard to ensure that COVID-19 stimulus packages included resources and improvements explicitly intended to meet the unique COVID-19 needs of Native communities. These efforts and resources include:

  • The NDN COVID-19 Response Project
    On April 9, the NDN Collective, an indigenous-led grassroots organization, launched the “NDN #COVID-19 Response project.” The project aims to “distribute $10 million across Indian Country to support those on the front lines of this global pandemic.” Grants are available to support essential services and relief efforts, including providing medical supplies, food delivery, youth and/or elder care, shelter and housing and more.
  • Federal Emergency Stimulus Package Relief
    An $8 billion Tribal Government Relief Fund, part of the third COVID-19 emergency relief package known as the CARES Act, will help ensure tribes have direct “one-stop” access to COVID-19 resources for economic recovery and and continuation of essential tribal government services. In addition, $2 billion in emergency supplemental funding is available for tribes, urban Indian health programs and Native communities, including $1 billion for the Indian Health Service and $69 million for the Bureau of Indian Education.


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