The disproportionate contraction of COVID-19 within the Navajo Nation is just one more indicator of the challenges and vulnerabilities that have historically affected Native American communities in our country. Prosperity Now Scorecard data on the Navajo Nation highlights the financial and health vulnerabilities that have left this community and other Native American populations stranded during this crisis.
The Navajo Nation has surpassed all states, including New York, with the highest per-capita coronavirus infection rate. The Native American territory has 2,304.41 cases per 100,000 people while New York state has 1,806 positive cases per 100,000 people statewide. The disparate impact on the Navajo Nation reveals centuries of marginalization and longstanding neglect by government entities to provide monetary and basic infrastructure support to Native populations.
The conditions in which people are born, live, work, learn and age are known as the social determinants of health. When these conditions are inadequate, they can have negative effects on a person’s physical and mental health. In particular, it has been extensively demonstrated that low-quality jobs, limited income, poverty and low education are the fundamental causes of a wide range of health outcomes.
Within the Navajo Nation, 35.8% of households have incomes below the federal poverty threshold. This is in comparison to 12.7% of all households nationally. Even more startling, over one in two households within the Navajo Nation do not have sufficient liquid assets to subsist at the poverty level for three months, in the absence of income. The Navajo Nation has enforced some of the most extreme social distancing measures in the country, enacting 57-hour weekend lockdowns and closing even essential businesses, including gas stations and food establishments. These highly necessary public health measures have caused major disruptions in household incomes, only exacerbating the high rates of liquid asset poverty present within this tribal community.
Health outcome measures prior to the crisis also indicated that the Native population was disproportionately vulnerable, with higher rates of chronic illness and lower life expectancies. In 2018, 29.9% of the Native population reported having a poor or fair health status, compared to 16.3% of the White population, 21.2% of the Black population and 25.8% of the Latino population. Additionally, 21.1% of the Native population is uninsured, compared to 7.5% of the White population, leaving the Native population unprotected against expenses incurred during medical emergencies.
The basic needs of residents within the Navajo Nation are not met: 35% of residents do not have access to running water, 15,000 people do not have electricity and residents must drive for hours in order to reach the nearest hospital or grocery store. The lack of running water prevents individuals from being able to properly wash their hands and sanitize surfaces, and overcrowding within multigenerational households makes it hard to socially distance, all precautions suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The lack of basic infrastructure support for the Navajo Nation has left this community uniquely vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last month there was a seven-week delay in the distribution of the $8 billion in COVID-19 relief aid for tribal governments as part of the CARES Act. This prompted dozens of tribes to sue the Treasury Department. The federal government needs to ensure that relief funds and supplies are quickly and effectively delivered to the most vulnerable populations, like the Navajo Nation. These delayed funds were highly necessary in order to purchase proper safety equipment and provide access to basic needs, such as food assistance and clean water. The federal government’s tardiness in dispensing these funds is just another example of its piecemeal support of the Native population.
The devastating impact that COVID-19 is having in the Navajo population is a symptom of a structural problem that requires structural solutions. We need to build a society where everyone has the opportunity to thrive. To that end, we need policy solutions that level the playing field, by acknowledging and addressing the unique barriers to basic health and financial resources that impede Native American communities from accessing meaningful opportunities to prosper in our society.
Originally posted by Prosperity Now on 2020-05-21 19:00:00