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(THE CONVERSATION) The SARS-CoV-2 virus is novel, but pandemic threats to indigenous peoples are anything but new. Diseases like measles, smallpox and the Spanish flu have decimated Native American communities .
Now COVID-19 is having similarly devastating impacts in Indian country. Some reservations are reporting infection rates than those observed in the general U.S. population.
We are social scientists who study many aspects of , including , the impacts of like uranium and fossil fuels, and how Indigenous communities with state and federal governments to maintain their traditional practices. As we see it, Native American communities face structural and historical obstacles related to settler colonial legacies that make it hard for them to counter the pandemic, even by drawing on innovative indigenous survival strategies.
Native communities in North America have been disrupted and displaced for centuries. Many face long-standing food and water that are further complicated by this pandemic.
On the Navajo reservation, which covers more than 27,000 square miles in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, 76% of households already , and the nearest grocery store is often hours away. COVID-related restrictions have further curtailed access to food supplies.
Clean water for basic sanitary measures like hand-washing is also scarce. Native Americans are to lack indoor plumbing than whites in the U.S. Nearly one-third of Navajo households .
Many that can increase COVID-19 mortality rates occur at high levels among Native Americans. These and conditions – things like hypertension, diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease – are and stem from of Indigenous food systems.
Meanwhile, on reservations and in urban Native communities make social distancing to reduce COVID-19 transmission impossible.
These factors have clear health impacts. On the Navajo reservation, for instance, through May 27, 2020, out of a population of 173,000 had tested positive for COVID-19, and 159 had died.
This infection rate per capita exceeds those in hot spots such as . Importantly, however, it may also reflect a much on reservations than in many other jurisdictions.
The fact that elderly people are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 could worsen the pandemic’s effects in Indian Country. Elders are the – legacies whose loss already threatens the persistence of indigenous communities.
Elders also play key roles in preserving traditional plant and medicine knowledge. In the absence of COVID-19 interventions from Western medicine, many elders have been called on to perform healing practices, which increases their exposure risk.
Many tribal members rely on the federal government’s for health care. But at the agency has hampered its response. Budget shortfalls, , the challenges of providing and ongoing personnel shortages in IHS clinics are compounded by staff being to fight the virus in large cities.
And while many states have raised frustrations with the Trump administration’s unwillingness to distribute protective supplies from the , IHS and tribal health care authorities to the stockpile at all.
Although the federal government has begun to IHS agencies, there have been serious problems with the accompanying supplies. The Navajo Nation has received , and a Seattle Native health center asked for tests but .
Meanwhile, federally imposed limits on tribal sovereignty have obstructed tribal governments’ efforts to deal with the pandemic themselves. Federal and state governments are to who may carry the virus. South Dakota’s governor has against two tribes who set up checkpoints to monitor incoming traffic on their reservations.
Energy development and resource extraction have had on tribes for many years. Today, many Native American leaders worry that ongoing energy production – will bring outsiders into close contact with reservation communities, worsening COVID risks.
The owners of the Keystone XL oil pipeline have announced that they intend to continue construction, which will bring an influx of workers along the proposed route through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and Fort Belknap Indian community in Montana have filed for a , and a key permit for the pipeline was , but work continues at the U.S.-Canada border.
Construction is accelerating on the , which bisects the in Arizona and Mexico. The Trump administration has , despite the tribe’s concern that the patrols’ presence is on the reservation.
And in Bristol Bay, Alaska, a salmon fishing season that brings in thousands of temporary workers is because the federal government has also deemed commercial fishing “.” Many local Native villages depend on the fishery for income, but have nonetheless pleaded with state regulators to . The regional hospital has just four beds for possible COVID-19 patients.
Native communities are taking decisive action to reduce the spread of COVID-19. They’re imposing aggressive measures like lockdowns, curfews and border closures. Communities are and elder support services, and banishing nontribal members who .
Other strategies include helping hunters to their communities, , and . Looking ahead to a post-COVID future, we believe one priority should be attending to that center tribes’ sovereignty to act on their own behalf at all times, not just during national crises.
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