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Native Americans are dying of COVID-19 at twice the rate of white Americans

native americans covid
Photo via Doug Floyd/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A troubling new report from the Guardian revealed that Native Americans are dying at twice the rate of white Americans from COVID-19, even as Native American communities are taking measures to fight the pandemic. 

The Feb. 4 report revealed that one in 475 Native Americans in the U.S. has died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began vs. one in every 825 white Americans and one in every 645 Black Americans. For Native Americans, the numbers total 211 deaths per 100,000 people, compared with 121 white Americans per 100,000. 

The article also notes that there may be underreporting in some Native American communities, making the real death toll even greater. 

“Not only do Native people have the highest rate of COVID deaths, the rate is accelerating and the disparities with other groups is widening. This latest data is terrible in every way for indigenous Americans,” said Andi Egbert, senior analyst at APM Research Lab, which shared its data with the Guardian for its story. 

“It’s like we’re having a cultural book-burning,” Jason Salsman, a spokesman for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma, told the New York Times, referring to the knowledge and oral history possessed by tribal elders who are dying of COVID-19. “We’re losing a historical record, encyclopedias. One day soon, there won’t be anybody to pass this knowledge down.”

That article characterized the situation as “deepening what critics call the deadly toll of a tattered health system and generations of harm and broken promises by the U.S. government.” 

It also noted that, to mitigate the losses across the country, “tribes are now putting elders and fluent Indigenous language speakers at the head of the line for vaccinations. But the effort faces huge obstacles. Elders who live in remote locations often have no means to get to the clinics and hospitals where vaccinations are administered. And there is deep mistrust of the government in a generation that was subjected without consent to medical testing, shipped off to boarding schools, and punished for speaking their own language in a decades-long campaign of forced assimilation.” 

NBC News noted, “While the rollout of coronavirus vaccinations has been chaotic and resisted by some of the public, the Cherokee have quietly mobilized their members to get as many needles into as many arms as soon as possible, starting with some of the most endangered members of the tribe—those who still speak Cherokee.” 

In December, Nautilus wrote on Cherokee efforts to fight the pandemic. That article noted the Cherokee Nation has had a mask mandate in place since March, well before it became the national norm, along with protocols and safety measures that enabled the tribe to control its coronavirus infection rate, despite surging numbers in other parts of Oklahoma.

It also utilized free drive-through testing as well as an abundance of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at hospitals. 

“We have one of the best public health systems in the country, which allowed us to be nimble when the worst crisis in modern memory struck,” Cherokee Chief Chuck Hoskin told the Guardian. “We’re a society, unlike the wider U.S., which believes in our citizens having access to healthcare at no costs.” 

But other Native American tribes not as well-prepared as the Cherokee are experiencing proportionally devastating losses. The Guardian noted that there are 574 federally recognized American Indian tribes and Alaska Native Villages in the United States. The Navajo Nation, the second-largest by population, has recorded the greatest number of deaths.

As one example of a tribe experiencing great loss, the Northern Cheyenne tribe in Montana has lost about 50 people to the pandemic so far, making up 1% of its total population of 5,000 people.

“Our collective grief is unimaginable,” said Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear, an assistant professor of sociology and American Indian studies at the University of California. “Losing 1% of our people is the equivalent of losing 3 million Americans. Native Americans are used to dying at disproportionate rates and we’re used to scarcity but COVID is different, there’s a growing sense of hopelessness.” 

She added, “I fear the long-term impacts on mental health, our children, community resilience and cohesiveness. We’re in the middle of a massive storm and we’re not prepared for the aftermath.”

Sources: Guardian, New York Times, NBC News


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