Indigenous Communities & COVID

August 20, 2020 - (4 min read)

Before the pandemic, Indigenous people were already one of the most disadvantaged communities in the United States. As the pandemic continues to hit our country, these disparities have only been exacerbated.

The National League of Cities (NLC) continues to push for direct federal funding for local governments, so it is also imperative to observe how tribes across our nation must deal with, yet another challenge: COVID-19.

While there is still significantly little data on the spread of COVID-19 among Indigenous communities, a New York Times study showed that “the rate of known cases in the eight counties with the largest populations of Native Americans is nearly double the national average.”

Councilmember Chris Stearns of Auburn City, WA and a Navajo Nation member, talked about the impact of COVID-19 on his community. “My own tribe, the Navajo Nation still has a higher per-capita infection rate than anywhere in the U.S. and tribes in Washington have not been spared either,” Councilmember Stearns noted.

The Economic Impact

The spread of COVID-19 in these communities has exacerbated the history of inequity including access to healthcare and basic facilities such as supermarkets.  Overall, the shutdown has greatly impacted the economies of Indigenous communities.

“Our neighbors, the Muckleshoot Tribe, doesn’t have the same sales tax structure that we have, so they are far more dependent on the tribal casinos to bring in governmental revenue. But the Tribe had to shut down its casino for quite a while, which meant they lost that revenue completely,” Councilmember Stearns explained

In 2018, over 25% of Indigenous people already lived in poverty and approximately 12% were unemployed. In some of these communities, the damage caused by the pandemic is immeasurable, so without an efficient allocation of resources as direct funding for their economic, health, and housing recovery this gap will only worsen.

Economists have confirmed that the country is already experiencing a recession that could be significantly magnified without direct aid to local government. Congress’ inaction, recent survey and data from NLC shows, will hinder the national recovery. And Indigenous communities, whose economies mostly rely on sales taxes, must rely, once again, on their resilient nature for survival.

Councilmember Stearns echoed the importance of direct aid: “We have to let Congress know that COVID relief legislation has to allow local governments – including tribes – to have the flexibility to spend funds to cover lost revenues, and to make sure that there is new funding for local governments and tribes.”

National recovery cannot happen without considering the needs of the country’s disadvantaged communities.

Working towards an Equitable Future

As local leaders respond to the health dynamics of this pandemic, they are also facing social uprisings related to historical inequities for Black, Indigenous and People of Color. Residents across the country are asking for more from their leaders.

Admittedly, the first step is always the hardest. And a first step to pursuing equity is recognizing the historical injustice towards Indigenous communities. This pandemic’s disproportionate impact should be taken as an opportunity to examine local and national policies and applying a more inclusive and equitable lens toward recovery and rebuilding.

“Yes, it can be painful to examine our conduct and make amends. But I believe that most cites want to do better by all their citizens. We want better policies. And that will mean, for many cities, choosing a path that builds reconciliation for past actions like discrimination or the taking of land,” Councilmember Stearns shared.

“As we consider laws to help our homeless population or deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important that we consider racial disparities in housing, health care, and access to wealth to make our city more inclusive and better for people to live in.”

There is still a long way to get the work done, and the nation needs leaders committed to equity and reconciliation. There is no recovery from a pandemic if we leave any of our communities behind. Local governments and tribes matter and aid is needed, especially for our most disadvantaged population.

“It is my sincere hope that Native American voices – which have often been ignored or dismissed –that those voices will be heard at the national level. And that issues that are important to tribes and tribal communities are better understood. Issues like tribal self-determination, the trust responsibility, and treaty rights. It is my hope that the National League of Cities will be a mechanism for the greater inclusion of Native voices in federal, state, and local policies,” Stearns said.


About the Author: 

Maria Elena Silva is a former Frank Karel Fellow in the Digital Engagement, Marketing & Communications department at the National League of Cities. She is a rising junior at Hood College, majoring in Economics.