In the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting Indigenous communities to a disproportionate degree. In this Special Feature, we bring into focus some of the mental health effects and challenges that Indigenous people face as a result of the pandemic.
Since the pandemic started, it has become increasingly clear that COVID-19 affects certain communities to a disproportionate degree. Race, biological sex, age, and socioeconomic status are some of the factors that can amplify the impact of the new coronavirus.
At Medical News Today, we’ve started to examine the racialized impact of this global pandemic, and specifically the toll that it takes on more vulnerable communities in the U.S.
In this feature, we continue by focusing on how the pandemic affects Indigenous populations in the U.S. and Canada.
As experts have pointed out, the COVID-19 data for Indigenous communities in the U.S. are reported inconsistently. This is partly due to racial misclassification.
Some states record data for Indigenous people with the groupings: “American Indian/Alaska Native,” “Native Hawaiian,” and “Other Pacific Islanders,” while other states lump them all together under the category “Other.”
This confusing way of reporting, together with the fact that the federal government does not collect data on all ethnicities and races equally across the country, makes it difficult to gauge with precision the impact that the pandemic is having on Indigenous communities in the U.S.
However, taking the still incomplete data concerning COVID-19 cases and deaths together with established information about social determinants of health in these communities indicates that the pandemic is hitting Indigenous people particularly hard.
For example, a frequently updated report by the nonpartisan American Public Media Research Lab found that Black Americans and Indigenous Americans are taking the brunt of the pandemic throughout the country.
The report estimates that 1 in 1,500 Black Americans have died of COVID-19, followed by 1 in 2,300 Indigenous Americans.
In some states, Indigenous populations are disproportionately affected, compared with their population share.
New Mexico is a stark example — here, Indigenous Americans make up only 8.8% of the population, but account for over 60% of deaths.
The Navajo Nation, a territory that spans parts of New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, made international headlines for having the highest infection rates per capita, compared with any U.S. state.
Furthermore, a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation warned that American Indian or Alaska Native adults have the highest risk of developing severe illness if they contract the new coronavirus, compared with all other racial and ethnic groups.
Specifically, 34% of American Indian or Alaska Native people aged 18–64 had a higher risk of severe illness, compared with 21% of white people in this age range.
In a teleconference organized by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), a philanthropic public health organization in Princeton, NJ, Dr. Donald Warne, associate dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences, spoke about the challenges that Indigenous communities in the U.S. face.
Limited access to healthcare, overcrowded and multigenerational housing, high rates of poverty and chronic disease, and limited access to clean water and grocery stores are only some of the social determinants of physical health in these communities during the pandemic.
A lack of testing and contact-tracing facilities in these communities further amplifies these disparities. Also, traditional practices involving large social gatherings to mark special events, such as harvests or coming of age ceremonies, may contribute to the spread of the virus.
Responding to similar challenges throughout the world, the United Nations have urged member states “to include the specific needs and priorities of Indigenous peoples in addressing the global outbreak.”
In the RWJF teleconference, Dr. Warne, who is also the director of the Indians Into Medicine program at the University of North Dakota, noted that some tribes are doing better than others, depending on their access to resources. Overall, he points out, the situation is dire, due to a lack of appropriate services and funding.
“American Indians are dying of neglect, and we need non-Indian advocates to recognize that there is an Indigenous health crisis in the United States.”
– Dr. Donald Warne