Why We Need to Protect Indigenous Elders During COVID-19 Pandemic

For indigenous people, elders are precious to us, they are the guardians of ancestral wisdom, they provide us with guidance, structure, and affection, and they do it all with love. Elders pass down to us the traditional way of life, they are a part of many creation stories and need to honored and taken care of. During the COVID-19 pandemic, elders are one of the most vulnerable populations, especially those who live on Native American reservations due to the underlying health conditions and the conditions of where they reside.

For those who don’t know, reservations are in rural communities where access to hospital beds, intensive care unit beds, and ventilators are limited. On some reservations, there is no running water, which makes the best COVID-19 prevention method, hand washing, more difficult. COVID-19 has further exposed the water crisis problem many reservations face, particularly the Navajo reservation. Elders who live on reservations also have the highest rates of diabetes and other chronic illnesses in the nation. Since the onset of colonization and forced relocation, Native Americans have been dependent on “commodity foods” which have significantly lowered their immune systems, and increased obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Reservations

The health disparities on reservations make it so that Native Americans are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. The pandemic is spreading at an alarming rate on reservations, and the high rates of heart disease, asthma, cancer, diabetes, and overcrowded houses, put families at higher risk. The Navajo (Dine’) Nation has seen more than 921 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 38 deaths, accounting for 16% of all Arizona cases, while they make up only 6% of its total population. At the epicenter of the outbreak is Chilcinbeto, a community where the nearest grocery store and hospital are about 25 miles away. In fact, AZ Central states that half of the 74 communities on the 27,000 square-mile Navajo Reservation, are more than 20 miles from the nearest hospital.

In Arizona, according to the Phoenix New Times, health officials anticipate that they will need an additional 13,000 hospital beds and 1,500 intensive care unit (ICU) beds. And on the Navajo (Dine’) Reservation, there are just a mear 13 ICU beds in the in-patient facilities. Patients with severe cases have instead been flown to hospitals in Phoenix, Albuquerque and Flagstaff, but these hospitals may reach their capacity soon too.

Other tribes within Arizona (Fort Apache, Havasupai, Hualapi, Tohono O’odam) all have communities that are far from hospitals as well. A few updates from other reservations experiencing the severe impact of COVID-19 include:

  • In the Grand Canyon, the Havasupai Reservation has one doctor, one nurse, and NO ventilators.
  • In South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Reservation, the Cheyenne River Hospital closed down, leaving four communities without a nearby hospital.
  • In total, there are 295 Tribal communities that are farther than 20 miles from the nearest hospital, including seven communities on the Kiowa-Comanche and Apache Fort Sill community in Oklahoma.

How Did We Get Here?

While we discuss the severe impact of COVID-19 on Native communities today, it is also important to discuss how and why reservations are especially vulnerable during these times. Infectious disease has threatened Native communities since European contact. The first time a foreign infectious disease was introduced to Native Americans was when pilgrims came off the ship carrying smallpox. Settler-colonialism has put Native Americans into further risk and vulnerability of public health crisis’ due to a history of breaking treaties to pursue fossil fuel projects, including pipelines, dams and coal and uranium mining, which has taken away communal access to clean water and has been directly linked to causing higher cancer rates, asthma, and food access disparities.

Additionally, according to the National Institutes of Health, during the 2009 outbreak of the swine flu, the death rate for Native Americans who contracted the swine flu was four times that of all other racial and ethnic groups combined. In 1918, the Washington Post shares that the flu hit Native communities four times harder than any other population, and according to the National Institute of Health, 72 of the 80 residents at Inupiat village of Brevig Mission, Alaska died.

As you can imagine, no access to clean water and a lack of medical infrastructure has had an immense impact on Native Communities. As colonizers drove Indigenous peoples out of their territories, they were also cut off from access to their traditional foods. They were forced to survive on government rations, or “commodity foods.” The commodity food programs and the forced deprivation of tending and caring for healthy land were aimed to break apart Native Americans’ sacred connection to the land. It also caused a diabetes epidemic, where the Native American diet was replaced with starch, sugar, and fat. Prior to the 1940s, there is little record of diabetes in native communities, but by the end of the 20th century, one in eight natives had diabetes

Colonization continues to leave an impact on Native Americans. It has made it so that they are most at risk during any public health crisis. The elderly are the ones who both have been faced with the most hurdles, and yet they still pray for us to be healthy and well.

As Earth Guardians we know the urgency in protecting Pachamama, mother earth, and we know that our elders are the ones that can guide us to be better for our own grandchildren one day. Our elders have walked on this earth before us, teaching us how to walk gently on mother earth, as well as the ceremonies we need to conduct for the universe to be in good order. It is our responsibility as the younger generation to take care and honor our elders so that we are able to be there for the forthcoming generations.

In closing, I want to share that Love is the most powerful force. Love travels through generations and galaxies, and it can shift the universe. We can love each other and still maintain physical distancing. Call your elders, create and organize a mutual aid fund in your community for your elders, and support those who live on reservations. As Indigenous people we are resilient, and we will come out of this courageous and always in prayer.

“I ask all blessings,
I ask them with reverence of my mother earth,
of the sky, moon, and sun my father.
All is peaceful, all in beauty,
all in harmony, all in joy.”

— Dine’ (Navajo) prayer

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