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Opinion The federal government fiddles as covid-19 ravages Native Americans

A sign warns nonresidents to stay out of the Navajo Nation town of Tuba City in Arizona in an attempt to stop the spread of covid-19. (Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images)

Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, represents Massachusetts in the Senate. Deb Haaland, a Democrat, represents New Mexico’s 1st District in the House.

For generations, the federal government has failed to honor its promises to Native American people. Now, covid-19 is ravaging Native communities, killing young people and elders alike, and devastating tribal economies. We are fighting in Congress to ensure that sovereign Native nations have the resources needed to protect the health and well-being of their citizens during this pandemic. The novel coronavirus’s terrible impact in Indian Country underscores that the federal government must live up to its unique legal and moral obligations to Native nations and act as a partner to help build security and resiliency for the future.

The coronavirus has taken a tragic toll on Indian Country. The Navajo Nation had infection rates higher than any state as of last week. In New Mexico, Native Americans make up just 11 percent of the population, but account for more than half of the covid-19 cases. Native nations’ economies have been devastated. And American Indians and Alaska Natives also disproportionately suffer from health conditions that make them especially susceptible to complications from covid-19, in part because of environmental injustices that have left their communities grappling with the health impacts of poisoned water and air.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

By disregarding the clear health crisis in tribal communities, the federal government continues a tragic pattern of broken promises to Native nations. During negotiations over the Cares Act, the major coronavirus relief package passed by Congress in March, the White House fought against any direct aid to the 574 federally recognized sovereign Native nations. Even when Senate Democrats and the Congressional Native American Caucus successfully ensured the legislation included this critical economic aid, the Treasury Department dragged its feet for weeks. More than a month after the Cares Act was enacted, Native nations still hadn’t received a penny of the $8 billion the law provided to them. Only after we and our colleagues pressed the Treasury Department did it release some of the funds to tribal governments.

The government has also failed to protect American Indians’ and Alaska Natives’ health. Even before the pandemic, the Indian Health Service (IHS) was woefully underfunded. A report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights stated, “In 2017, IHS health care expenditures per person were $3,332, compared to $9,207 for federal health care spending nationwide.” Although funding needs have only grown with the arrival of covid-19, the Cares Act provided less than Indian Country requested for pandemic health-care needs. Bureaucratic obstacles forced the Navajo Nation to wait for desperately needed funds as infections multiplied among its citizens. The IHS, tribal health authorities and urban Indian health organizations have struggled to access the Strategic National Stockpile, a federal repository of drugs and medical supplies for public health emergencies.

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The federal response to covid-19 in Indian Country is unacceptable — and the American people strongly agree. New surveys from Data for Progress found a bipartisan majority of Americans support increasing funding for the Indian Health Service, holding the federal government legally responsible for upholding its treaty obligations, including health care, and allowing Native nations to interact directly with the federal government to receive aid instead of going through states. The same goes for prioritizing federal aid for hospitals and other essential services needed by communities of color and Native communities that are disproportionately exposed to air pollution and covid-19. There’s also broad support for letting tribes directly obtain resources from the Strategic National Stockpile without jumping through hoops at the state level — a proposal for which we introduced federal legislation.

It’s beyond time for the federal government to take decisive action to empower Native nations. The American people want it, and our moral and legal responsibilities require it.

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Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

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Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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