COVID-19 hears our racial biases and echos them

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The remote Navajo Nation town of Kayenta, Tuesday, March 31, 2020, in Phoenix. Several dozen guardsmen have been dispatched to the hard-hit reservation to build a temporary hospital and resupply clinics.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The remote Navajo Nation town of Kayenta, Tuesday, March 31, 2020, in Phoenix. Several dozen guardsmen have been dispatched to the hard-hit reservation to build a temporary hospital and resupply clinics. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The novel coronavirus is wreaking havoc across the globe. In the United States, no community is safe from the physical, emotional, social and economic toll the pandemic is taking on everyone’s lives. However, while coronavirus itself does not discriminate, the results of its presence mirror the socioeconomic disparities our nation has been infected with since its creation. Native American groups have faced brutal living conditions and poorer health outcomes since the beginning of white settlement, and the current state of reservations is putting them at increased risk of disease and death.

Native American reservations are often located a hundred miles from a clinic or other source of conventional medical care. According to Dr. Camilla Townsend, a history professor at Rutgers University, since “Reservations were established on the least desirable land — poor for farming and distant from urban employment opportunities — tribal governments have often had to decide to accept payment in exchange for being repositories for hazardous waste, simply in order to make ends meet.” These conditions predispose habitants to health conditions such as cancer and autoimmune disorders, weakening their immune systems and making them more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

The Navajo Nation has already reported 10 deaths from the coronavirus. Decades of uranium mining on the reservation has left tribe members with health conditions and drained their aquifer. In fact, 40% of the Navajo Nation does not have access to running water or indoor plumbing.

For people like Percy Deal, who lives on Black Mesa in northeast Arizona, this means hours of hauling jugs of water long distances in order to drink, wash clothes and prepare food. While washing our hands, a recommendation many of us are taking for granted or feeling inconvenienced by, may seem like a simple task, it requires a significant amount of additional labor for people who must carry their own water and introduces yet another level of stress during an already terrifying time.

Deal claims that the amount of water required to wash his hands the government-recommended amount of times is “a gallon and a half or so… for me, I’m using the same water at least three or four times. So I can’t be washing my hands that many times”.

In addition, many Native Americans on reservations do not have access to electricity. This makes it harder to stock up on food and other supplies, forcing vulnerable tribe members to expose themselves in public spaces more often to feed themselves.

The Indian Health service, the operating division within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that provides public health resources to federally-recognized Native American tribes, was already inadequate before COVID-19. Under normal circumstances, the Navajo Nation has about 400 hospital beds available for a population of 170,000 people. This should have never been allowed to happen and now innocent people will suffer and die because of our elected officials’ neglect.

It is imperative that we recognize where the staggering amount of carnage disease outbreaks can inflict on Native American populations comes from. We did not genetically engineer this virus, but the brutality built into the way our government has treated and still treats Native Americans causes them to suffer disproportionately. More immediate efforts such as GoFundMe campaigns have been surging in order to provide food, water and other resources to tribal elders and should continue to be supported. In addition, citizens should contribute to nonprofit organizations such as DIG DEEP, which installs water systems for Americans that do not have access to clean running water. Finally, in the long term, we must learn to hear the voices that are drowned out in the political atmosphere and speak for them until Capitol Hill is forced to answer. 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual writers in the opinion section do not reflect the views and opinions of The Daily Campus or other staff members. Only articles labeled “Editorial” are the official opinions of The Daily Campus.

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Katherine Lee is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. She can be reached at katherine.lee@uconn.edu.

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