doctor covid-19
Navajo Nation has lost more to coronavirus than 13 states
03:54 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: CNN host Van Jones is the CEO of the REFORM Alliance, a criminal justice organization. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

The pandemic ravaging some Native American communities has echoes that go back centuries – to the measles and smallpox epidemics that first decimated the original Americans. This time, however, rapid action can avert a catastrophe.

The stakes are high. And the human stories are already heartbreaking. For example, Andrea Circle Bear never met her daughter. The day before she delivered her baby via cesarean section on April 1, doctors placed Circle Bear on a ventilator. Less than four weeks later, the young mother succumbed to Covid-19 and passed away.

Circle Bear was only 30 years old. She had been sentenced in January for a nonviolent, drug-related offense. Pregnant and with a preexisting condition that put her at greater risk of complications, she should have been furloughed. Instead, her daughter will never meet her mom.

Valentina Blackhorse was just 28 years old when she died. Her family said she likely contracted Covid-19 caring for her companion, a detention officer in the Navajo Department of Corrections. She dreamed of one day helping to lead the Navajo Nation. Now her 1-year-old daughter will grow up without a mother.

Circle Bear and Blackhorse have more in common than tragic lives cut short too young. They were both Native American, two of 73 confirmed dead among the Navajo Nation alone. And they were both connected to prisons, where the virus is spreading rapidly.

The sad truth is this is not the first time a pandemic has devastated Indian Country. Going back to the earliest days of colonization – and even as recently as the 1918 influenza pandemic, which was four times more lethal within the tribes – Native Americans have borne the worst of this country’s diseases.

This year, Native leaders tried to sound the alarm, but too few of us listened. Navajo Nation, surrounded by Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, is one of the epicenters of the virus in the United States, according to Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House coronavirus task force. It has the highest infection rate after New York and New Jersey. As of now, according to tribal officials, there are more than 2,000 reported cases.

The problem is not confined to the Navajo People, either. The Indian Health Service (IHS) reported almost 4,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases, across all 12 regions used by the IHS system – from reservations to city-dwelling urban Native Americans.

The horror overtaking Native American communities stems from three interlinked problems:

Wellness: Native communities suffer from disproportionately high rates of risk factors for Covid-19 complications, including heart disease and diabetes. And many tribes say the IHS is underfunded and understaffed. Just consider that the federal government spends $12,744 per person on Medicare and $9,404 per person on veterans health – but only $2,834 per person on health care for Native Americans, according to the US Commission on Civil Rights.

The Navajo Nation, a territory the size of West Virginia, has only a dozen hospitals and part-time health clinics spaced far apart. Centuries of broken promises and the lack of adequate medical care have left all of Indian Country, not just the Navajo people, deeply vulnerable.

Water: Somewhere between 15 and 40% of Navajo homes do not have clean running water. Many must wash their hands with reused water, which some fear now could be contaminated by a prior user carrying the virus. Even though there have been no documented cases of the virus spreading through reused water, the lack of clean running water poses challenges to anyone trying to maintain pandemic-proof levels of hygiene.

Wealth: Some homes on reservations lack reliable electricity. Many homes are overcrowded and shared by large families, making physical distancing near impossible. Over a century ago, the US government pledged in treaties to provide health care, housing and infrastructure in exchange for land, but we have failed to fully hold up our end of the bargain.

Even Indian Country’s economic success stories are at risk right now. Many tribal governments get revenue from restaurants, retail shops and casinos. But most of these business ventures had to close their doors and suffer massive budget hits.

Here are 10 things we can do right away:

First, all of us can chip in. A host of funds are accepting donations and providing relief to different Native communities. We do not need to wait on leaders to start helping.

Second, we need to make sure promised help actually arrives. Congress put $8 billion for Native American health in the CARES Act relief bill, but a month after the measure passed, most tribal governments claimed they had not received any of it, according to Huffington Post.

All tribes have to apply through various agencies, sometimes via state health departments. These burdensome, bureaucratic application processes make the timeline longer – they could be simplified or possibly eliminated.

Third, the promised help must go to tribal governments and not Native for-profit corporations. In response to a lawsuit from Native leaders, a federal judge recently halted a Trump administration move to distribute funds to profit-making companies instead of recognized tribal governments.

Fourth, the next wave of relief must include critical health funding. Indian Country needs billions of dollars more to fund hospitals and health clinics and build new ones, reimburse the IHS for extra costs, and purchase ventilators and Covid-19 tests.

Fifth, the Trump administration could help coordinate a rapid response by maintaining the White House coronavirus task force – and adding to it Rear Adm. Michael Weahkee, the director of the IHS.

Sixth, we need to ease the economic and budgetary pressure on tribal governments by covering the cost of FEMA emergency assistance and making a special effort to ensure that Native small businesses and tribal governments can access paid leave, emergency benefits and help from the Paycheck Protection Program.

Seventh, we need to follow through on unfulfilled promises, before things get worse. We can start by unfreezing federal funding for housing for Native Americans that has been blocked up for decades, according to Kevin Allis, CEO of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). Better housing with more rooms and amenities would make it easier for Native American families to create social distance and stay healthy, whenever the next pandemic rolls through.

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    Eighth, we can speed up the relief effort. Native organizations are asking for a host of fixes that would help the IHS work more efficiently, get federal money to tribal governments faster and incentivize more doctors and nurses to join the IHS.

    Ninth, many students who are now supposed to do homework online do not have access to high-speed internet, or even computers. Broadband is also critical for telemedicine; NCAI did list telehealth as one of their priorities for stimulus funding. Lack of broadband access is a problem everywhere and worse on reservations – but one we can fix.

    Finally, there are huge barriers to implementing safe and secure voting – for example, a lack of mailing addresses for voting by mail. There are practical changes – like mobile voting stations, convenient ballot drop boxes and translation services – that can make sure American citizens are not disenfranchised – while also ensuring their personal safety.

    Native Americans themselves are doing all they can – in government, NGOs and companies. Some tribal governments imposed curfews and quarantines. The IHS and National Guard are working miracles with what they have. Native leaders are invoking the resilience of prior generations to inspire their people to stay strong, stay safe and stay home.

    Now, it is our turn.