Vanessa Dundon has spent 16 weeks supporting her fellow Navajo Nation members as they continue to grapple with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the United States.
“It feels like biological warfare,” said Dundon, a Dine Bikeyah woman and enrolled member of the Navajo Nation.
In May, Navajo Nation, which has a population of 173,647 people living within its borders, surpassed New York City as the region with the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 in the U.S. At its peak, Navajo had an infection rate of 2,304.41 cases per 100,000 people. (Comparatively, Texas currently has an infection rate of of 942 cases per 100,000 people and Florida is reporting 1,315 cases per 100,000 people.) As of Monday, the Navajo reported a total of 8,243 confirmed virus cases, with 402 deaths. And after three months of fighting COVID-19, mandatory weekend curfews have flattened the nation’s curve, but outbreaks are ongoing.
Dundon lives in White Cone, Arizona, in one of Navajo Nation’s 110 communities. Her area hasn’t been hit particularly hard by COVID-19, but she knows several people who’ve caught the virus and she’s bracing for the worst. As of “this past week, there are cases now in my area and I knew it was coming,” Dundon said.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez has reissued a state of emergency multiple times and implemented several lockdowns, on and off mandatory curfews, mandatory facemasks, and checkpoints limiting flow in and out of the nation—measures Indigenous communities around the world have taken to prevent contagion.
COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Indigenous communities all over the world, from Brazil to Australia, highlighting a global pattern of colonial governments that continuously fail Indigenous peoples. Indigenous communities have had to take matters into their own hands in response.
It’s common for Navajo families to set up multigenerational homes, often sheltering up to 10 or 12 people, many of whom are elders, in the same house. Dundon said that makes it difficult to maintain distance from others and likely contributes to the growing number of COVID-19 cases. But there are bigger issues as well, including the lack of clean, running water in nearly 30 percent of homes, too little government funding, too few medical staff on reservations, and a shortage of sanitizers and medical-grade protective gear, Dundon said.
Dundon spends her days putting together and delivering care packages filled with donated items like healthy food, water, snacks, board games, books, and masks—items that make long-term isolation and COVID-19 hygiene not only possible, but bearable. She even recalled how she got a shipment of disposable shoe coverings that she was able to share with her aunt who works as a janitor at a nearby hospital.
“She was so happy she cried,” Dundon said.
Sheila Bedoni is a community health worker supervisor with Navajo Nation and works on the pandemic’s frontlines. She said she and her team have been working overtime for home visits, doing everything from checking vitals, delivering food and clean water, finding diapers and formula for parents, and making sure elders are supported. “We’ve come across a lot,” Bedoni said.
"We have to practically bend over backwards or beg Congress and the president for help."
Bedoni knows too many people who have contracted the virus: her sister-in-law got really ill, her nephew was hospitalized after testing positive for COVID-19, and her husband’s cousin-brother and some of Bedoni’s patients have died. “It does affect me,” Bedoni said. “If it’s your patient and you visit them every month or twice a month, you get close to them.”
The community healthcare worker said she’s tired of the U.S. government’s neglect.
“It seems like we have to practically bend over backwards or beg Congress and the president for help and to show them these are our needs,” Bedoni said. “Whereas if it was somewhere else in the state, I feel like they (non-Indigenous communities) would get help right away.”
In March, the U.S. government committed $8 billion for pandemic support to tribes under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, with funds initially allocated based on tribal population size and a second round of payments dependent on tribal employment and expenditure data. The deadline for most of the money was April 26, but payments were funnelled to Indigenous communities late—in May and mid-June—because the Treasury Department struggled to workout a methodology for money distribution. Restrictions attached to the funds also stymie tribal abilities to combat COVID-19.
The emergency funding, of which Navajo received $600 million, has to be spent by the end of the year and can only be used for expenses directly tied to the pandemic, even though Indigenous nations all over the world, Navajo included, are more susceptible to severe pandemic impacts because of long-term infrastructure problems, health outcome disparities, and government neglect, several Indigenous activists and community members told VICE News. Indigenous leaders and communities members have suggested the money could support long-term infrastructure enhancements. Even Navajo Nation’s president proposed on July 5 to spend $300 million on water and agriculture infrastructure, as well as hundreds of millions on powerline and solar infrastructure, broadband and telecommunications technology, and scholarships for Navajo students entering healthcare.
In the U.S.’s midwest, two Sioux tribes—the Cheyenne River Sioux and the Oglala Sioux—set up border checkpoints several months ago to prevent people who aren’t enrolled tribal members from entering their territory and spreading COVID-19. But South Dakota’s state officials have actively tried to hamstring tribal efforts to keep Indigenous peoples safe, community members say.
One of the major problems is that U.S. government officials don’t spend enough time in Indigenous communities, so they’re disconnected from the realities on the ground, said Candi Brings Plenty, an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. When the Cheyenne River Sioux and Oglala Sioux opted to set up checkpoints at their borders, South Dakota Republican Governor Kristi Noem demanded they be removed and argued that checkpoints on state and federal highways are “illegal.” Noem even pleaded with the federal government for support.
But by limiting the flow of people, the Sioux tribes are ensuring their children and elders are kept safe—and without elders, cultural knowledge and language are lost, Brings Plenty said.
Cheyenne River Sioux is now suing U.S. federal government officials, including President Donald Trump and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, for allegedly trying to coerce the community to dismantle checkpoints.
“When (coercion) did not work, defendants pivoted to punishment: threatening to take over tribal law enforcement, imperilling tribal public safety as well as public health,” the lawsuit states, adding that government actions have infringed on tribal sovereignty and right to self-determination.
Brings Plenty lived in Pine Ridge, an Oglala Lakota reservation, at the start of the pandemic. The cabin she was renting was repurposed by the tribal government for quarantine housing, so Brings Plenty and her two teenagers relocated to Rapid City, but the move came after the family saw—and helped mitigate—the pandemic inequities experienced by community members.
Brings Plenty told VICE News she’s been watching the situation unfold through the eyes of her children, who realized early on that many of their friends don’t have running water or access to healthy food. The pandemic has exposed food deserts in and around Indigenous reservations in the U.S, with Native Americans experiencing rates of food insecurity three to four times higher than the rest of the population.
Many people are also experiencing suicidal ideation right now, Brings Plenty said.
Pine Ridge’s unemployment rate hovers at 80 percent, according to the reservation’s leadership, and now, “the pandemic has completely devastated our communities and families economically,” Brings Plenty said. The situation “pushed us (Brings Plenty and her teens), so we did a lot of mental health checks from a distance. I’d drive my children and they'd take food baskets and gift baskets, whatever we could, to their friends,” she said.
Indigenous peoples also suffer disproportionately from pre-existing medical conditions like diabetes and kidney problems, which is a problem, considering people with illnesses like diabetes are more at risk of severe cases of COVID-19. Brings Plenty pointed to the low quality and limited nature of healthcare on reservations as a barrier to protecting those most at risk.
Mark Carter, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s racial justice program and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, said all marginalized groups, including Indigenous communities “get the short end of the stick” during crises.
The U.S. government has moral and legal obligations to Native American tribes across the country, enshrined in treaties. “When you have a situation like you do in South Dakota, where you have a state threatening action against the tribe in which the state has no control over what happens over sovereign tribal lands, and the only entity with any real power of influence is the federal government, the state of South Dakota threatening action by enlisting the federal government’s help is really just an affront to tribal sovereignty,” Carter said.
Carter also called the health and infrastructure disparities that make Indigenous communities more vulnerable to crises, as well as poor government response during the pandemic, “unacceptable.”
Travel north across the U.S.-Canada border and the situation might be a little better, but that doesn’t mean it’s good. More than 100 First Nations in Canada have long-term water advisories, and VICE News already reported how a lack of clean water and adequate housing make it difficult for Indigenous peoples to follow pandemic-related public health guidelines.
Turns out, there’s also a problem with data collection.
“I was on a panel with people from the federal government who are in charge of Indigenous data and they were like, “Well, you know, we’ve done inter-jurisdictional scans and when we compare ourselves to other countries with Indigenous populations we’re doing quite well,’” said Courtney Skye, a fellow with Yellowhead Institute who has monitored government responses to COVID-19 in Indigenous communities.
“So, basically it’s: ‘We’ve compared ourselves to other colonial oppressors and others aren't doing anything, so we’re doing well’...it was crazy to have that so blatantly stated,” Skye said.
Skye has found that federal data tallying COVID-19 cases among Indigenous peoples is likely incomplete. When Skye first published a related report on May 12, she found “as many as 465 cases in 42 communities and likely seven deaths,” whereas Indigenous Services Canada, the federal ministry in charge of improving services offered in Indigenous communities, reported 175 COVID-19 cases and two deaths the same week. Today, the ministry has confirmed 343 cases of the virus and six deaths in First Nations—figures that are still lower than Yellowhead’s May data.
According to Skye, there are several factors affecting data collection, many of which highlight the ways urban Indigenous populations are also disadvantage during the pandemic: Indigenous patients may be reluctant to specify their racial identity because of fears of discrimination; public health agencies in areas with a smaller Indigenous populations may assume—incorrectly—that Indigenous peoples don't access their services; and long-standing problems with Canada’s Indian Registry means there are First Nations people across the country who are not legally considered to have Indian Status by the state.
Even if the data systems available have a voluntary mechanism for collecting race-based data, frontline workers are often uncomfortable asking about racial identity, Skye added.
In a statement to VICE News, Indigenous Services acknowledged problems with data collection and said the ministry is providing $250,000 to the First Nations Information Governance Centre to enhance data quality.
Indigenous Services allocated $305 million in COVID-19 relief funding for medical supplies and emergency planning in First Nations, Metis, and Inuit communities, with the amount dolled out to individual communities depending on specific needs and population size. Skye said some of the funding has likely already been depleted—a reality she’s aware of in her own community of Six Nations of the Grand River Territory.
“We’re not seeing how communities that were more severely impacted than other communities are getting additional support,” Skye said.
Six Nations did not respond to VICE News requests for comment. Indigenous Services said it will continue to accept and respond to requests for aid.
Finally, the Canadian government didn’t put resource extraction projects on hold despite calls from Indigenous leaders and activists who said they were worried transient workers could bring the virus into Indigenous territories. Several resource extraction workers tested positive for the virus and a notable outbreak in the Alberta oilsands resulted in COVID-19 cases across the country.
So, as in the U.S. and elsewhere, Indigenous communities in Canada have taken it upon themselves to pursue measures that prevent exposure to the coronavirus, including border closures and curfews. The entire territory of Nunavut, which is majority Inuit, even closed its borders at the onset of the pandemic to everyone except residents and essential workers, citing that COVID-19 could be “catastrophic.”
Siksika First Nation in southern Alberta is the latest community to deal with an outbreak, with 11 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 102 people or households in isolation reported last week. The First Nation imposed a temporary evening curfew to prevent further contagion.
"You never see statistics of white people dying like we are."
Brazil has the second highest number of COVID-19 cases, behind the United States. And again, Indigenous communities are disproportionately affected. According to Emergência Indígena, there were 13,801 confirmed cases of the virus and 493 deaths among Indigenous peoples, including prominent leaders, as of Monday morning. A 2010 census reported that about 900,000 of the country’s 209.5 million people are Indigenous.
The country has garnered international attention for its response (or lack thereof) to COVID-19 after President Jair Bolsonaro initially equated the virus to a “little flu.” (He has since tested positive himself.)
News reports have found that COVID-19 is spreading throughout remote regions of the Amazon, with outsiders, including illegal miners and government healthcare workers, making up the bulk of people exposing Indigenous tribes to the virus. A Brazilian federal court has even ordered the eviction of 20,000 illegal gold prospectors from the Yanomami reservation in the Amazon to protect the tribe from coronavirus.
And with the loss of Indigenous lives, comes the loss of Indigenous culture. Statistics reported by National Geographic , estimate that a staggering 9.1 percent of Indigenous people who have contracted the virus are dying—a figure almost double the rate of the general Brazilian population, which hovers just above five percent. The National Observer reported Indigenous peoples in Brazil have had to share and distribute supplies and spread awareness online.
In Australia, Indigenous communities sprung into action as soon as the pandemic started and limited who was allowed in, because they knew COVID-19 had the potential to devastate them—during the H1N1 pandemic, Indigenous peoples in Australia had a death rate six times higher than the general population. Even with measures in place, a new study from the University of Western Australia, found that the pandemic has disproportionately affected the mental health of Indigenous peoples in Australia.
“The pandemic has put many Indigenous Australians at risk of severe psychological distress,” the study notes. The “Australian government’s response to COVID-19 must address the existing social inequities that make Indigenous peoples more vulnerable to and heavily impacted by pandemics.”
As the Washington Post reported, Indigenous peoples are no strangers to rampant disease: when settlers first started colonizing regions known today as Canada, the U.S., Brazil, and Australia, they brought over smallpox, which killed up to 80 percent of Indigenous peoples. The 1918 flu pandemic also decimated entire villages. That’s why it makes sense that communities—from the Brazilian Amazon, Nunavut, Sioux tribes in South Dakota, and beyond—have taken it upon themselves to protect their people as COVID-19 continues to pose a global health threat.
“You see Indigenous people dying in Brazil, Australia, Hawaii, everything. Not just with the pandemic—you never see statistics of white people dying like we are,” Dundon said.
“The one thing I can say is Indigenous peoples are strong, we’re resilient, and we take care of each other,” Dundon added. “So many people are helping and doing local, grassroots, boots-on-the-ground work to help our communities.”
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The story has been updated to reflect comment from Indigenous Services Canada at 11 a.m. EDT, Tuesday, July 14, 2020.