Pandemic Puts Native American Health Disparities In Sharp Relief

For the Navajo Nation, COVID-19 is laying bare decades of health care and infrastructure disparities.The nation’s largest Native American reservation recently surpassed New York with the highest COVID-19 infection rate per capita in the country.

The historically underfunded Indian Health Service was ill-equipped to handle the surge of COVID-19 cases, with only 12 health facilities, 13 ICU beds and 28 ventilators available. Due to a shortage in nursing and specialized medical staff, the most critical patients have been airlifted to hospitals beyond the reservation.

Roughly 30 percent of homes on the Navajo reservation lack access to clean drinking water, making regular hand washing a challenge. In a territory roughly the size of West Virginia, there are only 13 supermarkets for a population of 170,000.

Forty percent of homes on the reservation do not have electricity, and 60 percent of residents do not have internet access, posing additional hurdles in communicating public health information.

Native American reservations had already been suffering from a glaring shortfall in federal health care funding. In 2016, the U.S. government spent $2,834 per person on health care in Indian Country and $9,990 per person in the rest of the country.

The CARES Act allocated $8 billion in relief funding to tribes nationwide ($600 million to the Navajo Nation). But as of last week, 40 percent of funds had not been released.

In a glimmer of hope, Navajo Nation president Jonathan Nez said Monday the curve is flattening there. And Johns Hopkins’ Center for American Indian Health, recently spotlighted in New York Times Columnist Nick Kristof’s Impact Initiative, is working to address public health gaps.