Arizona National Guard service members deliver personal protection equipment to a local distribution center in Whiteriver Arizona, for members of the White Mountain Apache Tribe. Photo: Tech. Sgt. Michael Matkin / U.S. Air National Guard

NativeWellness.Life: COVID-19 death toll tops Hiroshima atomic bomb count

Coronavirus kills behind hospital curtains, in private, where nobody can see

On August 6, 1945, the United States detonated two nuclear bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Experts estimated about 150,000 people died in Hiroshima alone.

On July 30, 2020, 75 years later, the United States reported 150,000 deaths from COVID-19.

The atomic attacks on Japan changed the course of history. Horrific images of the aftermath revealed a blast that leveled a city. Human suffering and death from radiation shocked the world. It’s the stuff of nightmares.

So is the coronavirus. It’s not as flashy. And it didn’t strike with an attention-getting mushroom cloud. Daily, the virus steals lives behind medical curtains. In private. Where nobody can see.

Its effects are frightening: Loved ones, isolated, dying, slowly, alone.

Other than the obvious differences between the epic tragedies there is one major different between the two. The atomic bomb killed everything in its wake. The coronavirus, on the other hand, picks its victims carefully: older folks, diabetics and those with heart conditions, liver disease, asthma and high blood pressure.

Unfortunately, the group with many of those pre-existing conditions include American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN). Their poor living conditions, remote reservations, overcrowded homes and poor healthcare opportunities combine for the perfect coronavirus cocktail.

In other words, COVID-19 is a selective atomic bomb. It’s killing more Native people when proportionately compared to other populations.

For example, Native Americans make up just 11% of New Mexico’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But they account for 35.7% of the state’s cases of COVID-19 and half the deaths. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies show death rates are nearly 50% higher for AI/AN than non-Hispanic whites.

Targeting everyone
A recent John Hopkins University study shows the coronavirus stalking younger, overweight or obese people.

That’s a punch to the gut. What once targeted mainly elders, now infects everyone -- grandparents, parents and children.

“On our tribal lands, we must take precautions at a higher level because of our higher level of health disparities,” Dr. Tami Jollie-Trottier said.

A member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in North Dakota, Jollie-Trottier is a licensed clinical psychologist. She’s a provider of mental health services in her rural reservation community in Belcourt, North Dakota She also wrote the University of North Dakota dissertation “Correlates of Overweight and Obesity in American Indian Children.”

For Immediate Release: Executive Order - Mask Mandate

Posted by Turtle Mountain Tribe on Friday, July 31, 2020

“Obesity and diabetes are some of our major concerns that put our people at risk,” Jollie-Trottier said. “We have to look out for ourselves and hold ourselves to a higher standard. I’m not surprised that overweight and obese individuals are at higher risk for suffering medical complications.”

“I think our communities are missing the point that our children are at extreme risk for developing chronic conditions. And they’re developing them earlier,” the doctor said. “The children are getting hypertension and diabetes at an earlier age and suffering greater consequences from their bodies having to deal with fighting off a disease.”

Tribal response
Many tribes are cautious. They’re tip-toeing through an unfamiliar area with virus land mines. Many have curfews or have suspended non-essential travel to stem the tide of the coronavirus. Spirit Lake Indian Reservation tribal leaders in North Dakota are requiring residents to wear masks, even though there is no state directive to do so. Tribes throughout Montana are also requiring mask wearing.

NativeWellness.Life is a monthly publication published by a Native-owned company for American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Virus also causes economic hardship
The coronavirus attacks with a one-two punch. First, it endangers people’s health. Then, it attacks their livelihoods.

Reservation economies were delicate before the virus. The poverty rate on reservations was 28.4%, the U.S. Census Bureau said in 2010. By comparison, the national average was at 12.7% in 2016, according to another census study.

Reservation economies are depressed with poor healthcare, low employment and substandard housing.

And, many people work for tribal governments. But when the virus struck, it forced everyone to stay home. People couldn’t believe it but their remote reservations became even more remote. It’s like being single, but when your boyfriend or girlfriend leaves, you’re somehow more single than before.

With no jobs or paychecks, the virus brought more poverty to an already impoverished place.

In addition, a Center for Indian Country Development study found that one of three Native employees work in the service industry, like food, health, cleaning and personal services. In other words, occupations hardest hit by the virus.

To make matters worse, tribes had to close their gaming operations. No jobs and no tribal income.

“For many tribes, Indian gaming is first and foremost about jobs,” Ernest Stevens, the National Indian Gaming Association chairman, said in a recent new release. “In 2019, Indian gaming generated over 312,000 direct American jobs, an added 468,000 indirect jobs, and $40 billion in tribal government revenue. For more than two months, COVID-19 has forced a temporary suspension of Indian Country’s economic engines.”

While many tribes have cautiously opened casinos, safe-distancing rules have dramatically reduced their normal income.

“More than 36 million Americans have been put out of work, and tribal, state, and local government budgets have been devastated,” Stevens said.

Death toll continues to rise
By September, the COVID-19 death toll for the United States will have climbed to near 200,000, or more. That will be close to the estimated 226,000 killed when America dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on those fateful days in 1945. The United States has just 4% of the world’s population but a quarter of its confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering. Thousands continue to die every day. America seems destined to surpass the horrific toll nobody wants to pass.

Orville Desjarlais is the managing editor of NativeWellness.Life, a monthly health and wellness print publication for Native Americans and Alaska Natives. He’s co-owner of Keya LLC, which publishes the magazine. Keya is a Native-owned company he started with his sister more than a year ago. They are tribal members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in North Dakota. Visit their website at NativeWellenss.Life.

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