Opinion: COVID’s toll on Native Americans

It is rare these days to find a political message cutting across the usual red-blue partisan divide, but I saw one last weekend. Looking out at me from the back of a pickup truck was a small bumper sticker featuring an image of a Native American in full headdress, looking stoic and sad. The message read, “Trust the Government.” I took the message as sarcastic, telling us “the Government” is not trustworthy due to this country’s sad history of mistreating Native American peoples.

The message is a little different from others we hear these days. More often we hear someone condemning critical race theory and vaccines together. Instead, this one relies on our country’s tough history regarding race as a reason to distrust all things related to government. This is an interesting twist, but still terrible advice. In fact, Native Americans need to get vaccinated for COVID right away.

A new report from the Brookings Institution shows the cost of nonvaccination. Titled “American Indians and Alaska Natives are dying of COVID-19 at shocking rates,” the report points out that among Native Americans, more of the deaths are among the young than among other races. Yet many celebrated elders have died too.

These statistics are often hidden because in many states the American Indian-Alaskan Native population is replaced with an asterisk due to its small size. Brookings researchers dug out the terrible truth: of all ethnicities, the first Americans are the hardest hit by COVID deaths, as a percentage of population.

The Brookings paper notes many states in which the Native American COVID deaths are much higher than those of whites as a percentage of population — 10 times higher in New Mexico, for example.

The news is better in Kansas. A Sept. 23 article in the Topeka Capital-Journal concluded that Native American vaccination rates in Kansas are about the same as for the population as a whole. Still, author Andrew Bahl found that this population has a “traditional mistrust of government,” and that bureaucratic red tape makes vaccination more complicated. This is exactly why conspiracy theories about “the government” miss the mark. Ours is a complex, overlapping system of federal, state, and local authority, plus for-profit and nonprofit entities working on government contracts, and so on and so forth. What we have here is not the government at all, but governments — and their interrelationships sure can make things complicated.

From the Bureau of Indian Affairs to state and local authorities, not enough is being done to address this crisis, and the problem appears worse in other states than it is here.

Yet as Bahl noted, American Indians — for very good reason — are still very distrustful of anything related to government, and may refuse vaccination for this reason. Yet today’s U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state and local public health authorities have little to do with this country’s horrible history regarding Native Americans. To refuse vaccination or promulgate conspiracy theories that say otherwise is to cause more preventable deaths.

We must face our country’s history honestly, but today, the culpability of our governments for Native Americans’ COVID deaths are happening because we are doing too little, not too much.

— Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.

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