The Coronavirus Is Tearing Through Native Communities

The Navajo Nation has a higher death rate than any state

Miss Navajo Nation Shaandiin P. Parrish distributes food, water, and other supplies to Navajo families on May 27. Photo: Sharon Chischilly/Getty Images

Today, the New York Times has a snapshot of how the pandemic disproportionately affects Indigenous communities. More than 10% of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians’ 10,000 tribal residents have been diagnosed with Covid-19 and 81 have died. In Neshoba County, where most of the tribe’s residents live, tribal members make up over half of the county’s Covid-19 cases and about 64% of the deaths — despite comprising just 18% of the county’s total residents.

“We’ve lost dressmakers, we’ve lost artists, elders who are very fluid in our language,” Mary Harrison, interim health director for the Choctaw Health Center, told the Times. “These are important people in our community.”

Other tribes continue to suffer as well. The Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in the U.S., has had at least 560 deaths, a higher death rate than any state. And in Wyoming, Indigenous Americans comprise about 30% of Covid deaths.

It’s not hard to pin down why coronavirus has been so much worse for Indigenous communities. As I reported for GEN in May, the pandemic has exacerbated a number of existing health care inequities plaguing many Indigenous communities: a higher rate of preexisting conditions, and a severely underfunded Indian Health Service.

“We just have a lack of access to advanced medical care and real hospitals,” Annjeanette Belcourt, an assistant professor at the University of Montana’s Health Sciences Department, told me. “In our rural areas, there just hasn’t been good access to testing.”

Writer and editor. Previously at Medium, Pacific Standard, Wired

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