Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: Lakota Man Distributes Free Hand Sanitizer Amid #Coronavirus Crisis

Kevin Abourezk: Indian Country can't be left behind in coronavirus crisis

• PHOTOS: Lakota man helps fight the coronavirus in Nebraska

The following opinion was written for Nebraska Report, a publication of Nebraskans for Peace.

The past few weeks have engendered the kind of fear that typically only a war can cause.

We only have to take a drive around our towns to see our streets and parking lots bereft of the number of cars we’re used to seeing. The shelves in our local retail and grocery stores are nearly devoid of items like toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

And our social media feeds have been hijacked by constant alerts and pronouncements about the latest news related to COVID-19.

All around us, life has changed.

Perhaps at no other point in our history have people in distant places like Wuhan Province in China and Bergamo, Italy, seemed so close and yet our friends and neighbors seemed so distant.

But for as much as we’re learning about the deficiencies within the American health system as it prepares to confront this pandemic, few of us understand how vulnerable the indigenous people of this land are to this threat.

I’ve spent the past couple weeks interviewing tribal leaders from California, Oklahoma, Michigan, South Dakota and Nebraska, as well as numerous advocates for tribes, such as the National Congress of American Indians and the National Indian Health Board. I’ve been feverishly trying to educate myself about the intricacies of the massive federal bureaucracy that serves the Native people of this land and about the Indian Health Service, the federal agency that delivers health care to most tribal communities.

In nearly all of my interviews, the message is the same: Indian Country is not ready for the tsunami that appears poised to wash over America. Like other hospitals in hard-hit areas like California and New York, Indian hospitals and clinics don’t have the necessary personal protective equipment – masks, gloves and scrubs – or the COVID-19 test kits necessary to monitor and treat any potential disease outbreaks.

Sara Anderson, a citizen of the Omaha Tribe, gives a bottle of hand sanitizer to Betty Vance, an Omaha elder, in Lincoln, Nebraska, on March 22, 2020. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

And while this all may sound all too eerily familiar, a major difference exists between Native health care and other hospitals that serve primarily non-Native communities. Native hospitals nearly always serve communities that suffer from disproportionate rates of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, lung disease and immunosuppressive disorders – all conditions that health officials have said create greater vulnerability to COVID-19.

In addition, while the average amount of money spent each year on non-Native patients is about $10,000 per person, the amount spent to treat Native patients is about one-third of that.

“There’s no mystery as to why Indian Country suffers from healthcare disparities that are alarming and shocking when there isn’t a pandemic running across the globe,” Kevin Allis, CEO of the National Congress of American Indians, told me this week.

And other socioeconomic disparities may further endanger the health and lives of indigenous people in America should this pandemic crash onto their shores.

Native people experience overcrowded housing at a rate of eight times the national average, and nearly 32 percent of rural tribal households live more than 10 miles from the nearest grocery store.

Within my own family living on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, my uncle’s home shelters more than a dozen adults and children, three generations of poverty-stricken but proud Lakota people.

Were just one of those inhabitants to catch the coronavirus, very likely my uncle’s entire household would fall ill, and with most of the adults suffering from chronic health conditions, this illness could very well mean a death sentence for one or more of them.

And so it goes for so many of our reservation kin.

Households made up of already sick adults with only poorly prepared and drastically underfunded hospitals to serve them likely will create an inexorable tide of infections in our tribal communities.

So how can we slow or stop this worst-case scenario from happening?

Write your congressman or senator. Tell them that tribes need to be included in any legislation that is designed to provide relief to communities and hospitals preparing for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tell them that it is morally wrong to continue to neglect the indigenous people of America who paid for their healthcare with the ceding of millions of acres of their land.

Tell them that providing support to one of the most vulnerable populations in our society is simply the right thing to do if we truly want to “flatten the curve” and meet the challenge presented by this threat.

Aho! Wopilatanka my relatives!

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