To say covid-19 has highlighted racial inequality in the U.S. healthcare system would be a gross understatement: Black and Latinx Americans have faced significantly higher rates of infection, hospitalization, and death as a result of coronavirus. According to the CDC, that includes children: three-quarters of the kids and young adults under the age of 21 who have passed away as a result of covid-19 were people of color. Earlier this week, the Associated Press found a huge racial disparity in vaccine distribution: Black Americans are receiving inoculations well below their population percentage, while white people receive a disproportionate amount of doses.
And yet, Native Americans are suffering more than any other group in this nation, though it is rarely reported. According to APM Research Lab’s analysis reported by the Guardian, coronavirus is killing indigenous communities at a faster pace than any other group—nearly twice as fast as the white population. One in every 475 Native Americans have died from covid-19—that’s 211 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to one in 825 white Americans, or 121 white Americans per 100,000, or one in 645 Black Americans. In January 2021, there were 958 recorded Native American deaths, up 35 percent from December 2020.
The losses are devastating, and could have long-lasting cultural impacts: 35 of the remaining 2,000 fluent Cherokee speakers have died from covid-19. In Montana’s Northern Cheyenne tribe, one percent of its total population has died from covid-19—a quarter of whom were native Cheyenne speakers.
“Every time one of those elders leaves this world, it’s like a whole library, a whole beautiful chapter of our history, of our ceremonies—all that knowledge, gone,” Clayson Benally, a member of Navajo Nation, told CNN. “It’s not written, it’s not dictated, you’re not going to find it on the internet.”
Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear, an assistant professor of sociology and American Indian studies at the University of California, told the Guardian, “Our collective grief is unimaginable. Losing 1% of our people is the equivalent of losing 3m Americans. Native Americans are used to dying at disproportionate rates and we’re used to scarcity but Covid is different, there’s a growing sense of hopelessness. I fear the long-term impacts on mental health, our children, community resilience and cohesiveness. We’re in the middle of a massive storm and we’re not prepared for the aftermath.”
One of the issues is a shortage of vaccines, just like in the greater United States, but not covid-19 vaccine hesitancy. The Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI) found that 75 percent of its participants, all Native Americans, were willing to receive a Covid vaccine. Compare that to a November 2020 Gallup poll that found only 58 percent of all U.S. adults were willing to be vaccinated, as the New York Times reported.
Clearly, structural inequalities are responsible—and Joe Biden’s covid-19 strategy to speed up vaccine distribution in these communities is a matter of life or death.