Tribal communities are among the poorest and most vulnerable in the United States. On some reservations, life expectancy is lower than in some Third World countries. Several chronic health conditions among the 5.2 million American Indians and Alaska natives kill at higher rates than across the U.S. population at large. These disparities are compounded by a lack of jobs and access to healthy foods, as well as overcrowded homes in which several generations live together.
Our interconnections and informal care networks ordinarily allow members of tribal communities to make ends meet. But they make us vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus and put us at greater risk when our social safety net is severed.
The inability of U.S. officials to provide testing for coronavirus on a broad scale means that covid-19 cannot be tracked and isolated with precision. Communities throughout the country are fighting the disease with the bluntest and crudest tool available: quarantine.
A number of tribes, including my own in Michigan, have done their part to promote social distancing by closing our casinos. While this helps contain the spread of the virus, it does so at enormous cost to indigenous Americans.
The more than 450 tribal casinos across the nation are not-for-profit enterprises. They provide revenue to tribal governments for programs including medical care and public health. Tribal casinos are usually the largest local employer. Closing them puts hundreds of people out of work while depriving tribal governments of resources they need to fund public health measures. Those numbers grow exponentially in a national context.
Our tribe has pledged to pay our 400 casino employees through April 16. This is an expensive burden, but we are committed to caring for our people. The cost could become unsustainable, however, depending on how long we are forced to stay closed. And that’s not getting into the hundreds of commercial fishers in our communities who have no restaurant orders to fill.
There is a direct link between public health, the lack of broad-based testing and the lack of economic security. If we cannot test on a broad scale to better isolate the disease, quarantines must be extended. But if quarantines are extended, people cannot work. If people cannot earn money to put food on their tables, they will not quarantine effectively because they will prioritize their immediate needs over our long-term need to contain this virus. The cycle will repeat.
As Congress appropriates assistance in the short and long term, how tribes receive funding — whether in grants or based on formulas — can be critical. Aid for food distribution, schools and housing would be helpful. All tribal governments will need resources to pay their wage-earners while non-essential businesses are closed. Tribal casinos, the primary source of revenue for a lot of tribal governments, should not be cut off from assistance. The U.S. government serves as the “trustee” for Indian tribes under federal law; given its responsibility for the tribes, this should take priority over bailouts for Las Vegas casinos.
The Trump administration and the Indian Health Service must also stop telling tribal leaders that test kits are “readily available” at our health centers. They aren’t. As of last Friday, my tribe had the ability to administer five tests. This is wholly inadequate. Other tribal leaders I’ve spoken to have even fewer. The federal government must make test kits as accessible to indigenous Americans as they are to National Basketball Association franchises, some of which have been able to test players and staff.
Our communal way of life can be dangerous in today’s circumstances — but keeping our distance from each other over time will become untenable. Indigenous Americans must not once again pay the price for the mistakes of others.