US Human Rights Network Blog

US Human Rights Network Blog



Navajo Nation’s high infection rate: A result of centuries of human rights violations

May 27, 2020

May Newsletter

We stand in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples across the United States whose homelands and ancestral wisdom are threatened by the coronavirus pandemic and by ongoing human rights abuses perpetrated by the federal government. 

This month the Navajo Nation has emerged as one of the communities hardest hit by COVID-19 in the United States. The Navajo Nation territory covers over 27,000 square miles of land across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, and has a population of around 175,000 people. With over 4,600 confirmed cases of the virus, the Navajo Nation now has the highest infection rate per capita in the US. 

This dire situation is the direct result of centuries of human rights abuses of Indigenous Peoples on this land that continue today. Indigenous Peoples faced generations of genocide -- both by direct massacre and through cultural decimation and indoctrination -- and continue to face chronic underfunding of critical services that has created conditions allowing for the rapid spread of the coronavirus. Despite hundreds of treaties between the federal government and tribal governments, and other pieces of legislation promising vital infrastructure in exchange for the federal takeover of millions of acres of Indigenous homelands, the basic human rights of Indigenous Peoples in the United States continue to be violated.

According to the US Commission on Civil Rights December 2018 briefing report titled Broken Promises: Continuing Federal Funding Shortfall for Native Americans, “Due at least in part to the failure of the federal government to adequately address the wellbeing of Native Americans over the last two centuries, Native Americans continue to rank near the bottom of all Americans in terms of health, education, and employment. […] The broken treaties have left many reservations without adequate access to clean water, plumbing, electricity, internet, cellular service, roads, public transportation, housing, hospitals, and schools”[1].

In the Navajo Nation where the coronavirus has taken hold, 40% of residents live below the poverty line and 30-40% of residents do not have access to running water.[2] This lack of adequate housing and sanitation make practicing key prevention strategies like frequent handwashing difficult. In addition, as a result of cultural genocide and a striking lack of health and wellness infrastructure, Indigenous Peoples are disproportionately affected by diseases that pose additional risk factors for COVID-19 including diabetes, heart disease, and respiratory illnesses. 

The entire Navajo Nation territory has only a dozen hospitals and part-time clinics spread across thousands of miles, with many residents requiring multi-hour drives to reach a hospital. The whole territory only has around 8 Intensive Care Unit beds; many COVID-19 patients are requiring medical evacuation to Flagstaff, Phoenix, and Albuquerque.[3] The healthcare facility limitations in the Navajo Nation are common among other reservations across the country; the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and Nebraska has one single inpatient healthcare facility with a total of 45 beds and 16 staff members, serving nearly 20,000 disparately located residents. There are only 33 ICU beds across all of Indian Country, and the average reservation hospital is four times older than their mainstream counterparts. Responding to a viral pandemic in these conditions is a death sentence. 

The Indian Health Service (IHS) has been underfunded for decades. Congress has repeatedly failed to fully fund the government’s treaty and statutory obligations which require housing, healthcare, and basic infrastructure for Indigenous communities. While the federal government spends an average of $12,744 per person on medicare, it spends $2,834 per person on healthcare for Native Americans.[4] The IHS currently meets only around 50% of the necessary capacity based on the size of the American Indian and Alaskan Native population. 

The US Human Rights Network stands in support of the Navajo Nation and other tribal governments who are suing the federal government, demanding that the $8 billion dollars designated to support Native American communities respond to COVID-19 is not shared with for-profit corporations. The federal government must mandate that all relief funds are sent directly to tribal governments only. The funds designated to support Indigenous Peoples in the US during this pandemic are essential and urgently needed, yet many tribal governments report that they have not received a single dollar since the CARES Act relief bill was passed more than a month ago.[5] We demand that these crucial funds are released now. 

We cannot allow the coronavirus pandemic to be another smallpox, another influenza, or another tuberculosis for Indigenous Peoples. The 1918 influenza pandemic was four times more deadly to Indigenous communities one hundred years ago. Native Americans historically suffer the greatest when contagious diseases spread. The federal government must act hastily to stop the spread of the coronavirus within the Navajo Nation and other tribal lands, and must provide appropriate and free healthcare services to those people who are already infected in order to minimize the death rate. 

The US Human Rights Network calls on the US government to prioritize meeting its treaty and statutory obligations to Indigenous Peoples, beginning with resolving the human rights violations that have been amplified by the coronavirus pandemic. We call for the provision of adequate housing including access to clean running water, and the immediate funding and infrastructure to upgrade the Indian Health Services nationwide and ensure that every person living on a reservation has access to the healthcare they need.