Decolonizing Health: How Native Communities Are Ramping Up COVID-19 Preparedness

Photo: Navajo Department of Health

Photo: Navajo Department of Health

Native American communities in several territories are rapidly stepping up efforts to prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic emergency. Their work is exemplary of how, despite the greater vulnerability of remote communities as well as health disparities inherited from centuries of colonial abuses, Native peoples are using every tool available to build stronger communities and help those most in need.

Awareness of an unjust system, where the federal government controls and curtails economic development on indigenous lands, is the first step towards decolonizing health.

Legislative efforts to obtain federal funds

Native Americans are well aware that the private health care system is out of reach for most indigenous communities leaving them significantly vulnerable to pandemics. Economic and ethnic disparities show that nearly one in four American Indians and Alaska Natives lack health insurance, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. This became evident during the H1-N1 pandemic, which disproportionately affected Native communities and showed a death rate four times higher than the rest of the population.

Access to federal resources, therefore, literally becomes a life saver.

Tribes are currently ineligible to receive resources from CDC’s health emergency program and must go through the Indian Health Service (IHS), which has been historically underfunded. Therefore, the National Council of Urban Indian Health and Native Representatives, such as Deb Haaland of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, made sure the emergency relief package passed by the House would include at least $94 million for Indian health organizations (which, as of this writing, is still pending in the Senate).

Pressure also came in the way of a second bill, the Tribal Medical Supplies Stockpile Access Act, cosponsored by US Senators Tom Udall and Elizabeth Warren, to allow tribes direct access to CDC resources, COVID-19 testing kits, and respirators. That bill came through direct conversations with the National Indian Health Board, the National Congress of American Indians, the National Council of Urban Indian Health, United South and Eastern Tribes Sovereignty Protection Fund, and the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

But waiting access to life-saving resources is not enough.

Emergency preparedness and community outreach

According to Native News Online, the Navajo Nation has been at the frontlines of COVID-19 preparedness through the creation of an emergency team that has been taking proactive measures to educate the public, coordinate efforts with several local and national agencies, and minimize community health risks. The Navajo Times reported that Navajo IHS staff traveled to Seattle for training in coronavirus emergency preparedness and to try establish quarantine and isolation facilities in Arizona and New Mexico.

A hotline has been set up for patients who are presenting symptoms but are not in critical condition, and radio forums are held every Thursday on KTNN, the Voice of the Navajo Nation, and KWRK at 6 p.m. to keep the public informed.

Community health representatives are also going door to door to inform the elderly, the most vulnerable population to COVID-19, how to take care of themselves.

As Jade Begay writes on NDN Collective’s website, for Indigenous people across borders, elders are sacred and the keepers of knowledge, and must be cherished and protected. “We all have a responsibility to protect our cherished elders.”

Jade teaches us the key importance of continuing decolonial work while approaching this world health crisis, which “will require some Indige-nueity” to practice social distancing while preserving our sense of community. Alaska Natives did just that with this video, by recognizing the importance of community for their people, while educating about the virus:

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Cultural sensitivity also calls for the creative use of Native languages. The Navajo are calling the virus, for example, Dikos Ntsaaígíí-19 (or Pneumonia-19) to use a simpler term and help people understand what this respiratory virus is capable of and what they need to be prepared for.

Efforts to curb this pandemic can be seen in multiple other examples, to name just a few, in the Sioux tribes, the Cherokee Nation, Seneca, culturally sensitive programs by the Alaska Natives and the Nez Perce Tribes, and multiple indigenous organizations in close coordination with each other.

If anything positive comes out of this health crisis, we wish for stronger communities: Native people, with limited resources but plenty of self-determination and historical memory, are leading the way.