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American Indian communities feel Covid-19's wrath

Catholic groups are helping tribal territories cope with the highest per capita infection rates in the US

Rhina Guidos, Catholic News Service

Rhina Guidos, Catholic News Service

Updated: May 25, 2020 03:47 AM GMT
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American Indian communities feel Covid-19's wrath

The Navajo tribal territory has reported more than 4,000 coronavirus cases. (Photo: Unsplash)

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Few places in the United States have been more vulnerable to the wrath of the coronavirus than the sovereign tribal territories of the country's first dwellers.

Long before Covid-19 came into being, lack of running water and food deserts — places with few places to buy groceries — within American Indian tribal lands already made daily life difficult for those living on reservations, colonies and other tribal territories. Some say those conditions, in the midst of a pandemic, now have led to the highest per capita rates of Covid-19 within the continental US.

Navajo Nation president Jonathan Nez has been calling attention to the more than 4,000 cases in the largest area of tribal territory in the United States, citing 2,304 cases of the virus per 100,000 people, compared to New York, considered the US epicenter, and its rate of 1,806 cases per 100,000. Navajo Nation's death toll, as of May 22, neared 150.

The situation in places such as Navajo Nation became so dire in mid-May that the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders sent a team in to help the community, known as the Dine, within New Mexico — the first time it has done so within the United States.

"There are many situations in which we do not intervene in the United States, but this has a particular risk profile," Jean Stowell, head of the US Covid-19 response team for Doctors Without Borders, told CBS News in mid-May.

Though US$8 billion was allocated to American Indian communities in the CARES Act Congress passed on March 27, the money did not arrive until late April, making it difficult in the meantime to provide conditions that would have brought running water and food to those living within the territories. By the time some of the money arrived, many had contracted the virus.

Conditions such as a higher than average rate of diabetes among American Indians, a chronic condition that becomes even more dangerous for those who acquire the virus, lack of running water to put into place the handwashing precaution to prevent the spread of the virus, plus the added challenge of having to travel long distances to buy food and coming into contact with communities where the virus was running rampant, set up a steep hill for many tribal communities. 

By May 22, the Indian Health System had confirmed more than 6,500 cases of Covid-19 and confirmed 184 deaths at its facilities. 

Concerned about the alarming situation, on May 13 three US bishops issued a joint statement, saying they were "heartbroken" that indigenous people in the United States "continue to greatly suffer from the Covid-19 epidemic" and at "disproportionately high rates" compared to other US communities.

Nationally, the Catholic Church, through organizations such as the Chicago-based Catholic Extension, which works in the nation's mission dioceses in the poorest regions of the United States, has funded the salaries of church members as well as of facilities such as schools that have served places such as Navajo Nation. The US bishops support these regions of the country through their annual Catholic Home Missions Appeal.

A May 15 report on Catholic Extension's website says the organization supports 15 parishes and missions "spread across the vast Navajo Nation," in "a population that has many challenges even in 'good times.'"

Even before the pandemic, a third of the population had no access to running water, the organization said, making it difficult to comply with the handwashing recommendation as a means to prevent the virus. Though with limited resources in the region, Catholic parishes have kept facilities open to the public during certain hours, so that people can access potable water and take it home during the pandemic, the organization said.

A group of women religious, the Daughters of Charity in Tuba City, Arizona, also supported by Catholic Extension for 20 years in the area, have been involved in food distribution to the hungry, and funding the electricity bills of the poor, Catholic Extension said.

The St. Anthony Indian School in Zuni, New Mexico, has been providing study packages for students that each week are distributed and returned via a drive-through system since many pupils lack access to the internet at home. Some access lessons by teleconferencing with students listening via a telephone system, which also is used to broadcast Masses.

And even at the parish level, some like Father Tai Nguyen, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Kearns, Utah, began sewing masks in early April to send to Navajo Nation.

The unfolding situation also called the attention of celebrity chef Jose Andres, who mobilized his charity World Central Kitchen's Relief Team to go to New Mexico to make food packages for hungry families as well as those affected by COVID-19.

Though dealing with the virus, tribal communities also are fighting battles with state governments and federal agencies to keep others from entering their lands and exacerbating the situation.

In South Dakota, to prevent their weak healthcare systems from collapsing, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the Oglala Sioux Tribe set up checkpoints along federal and state highways that run through tribal lands, saying that they're needed to prevent unnecessary visitors into tribal lands during the pandemic. But the South Dakota governor has asked the White House to step in and lift the checkpoints.

Navajo Nation president Nez also urged the National Park Service to keep the Grand Canyon, which borders tribal lands, closed.

Harold Nez Frazier, chairman for Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, has said the tribe has to take such measures because it's a vulnerable population, with members dealing with obesity and diabetes, as well a bare-bones healthcare facility. For similar reasons, tribal governments in Arizona and New Mexico also have set up checkpoints.

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