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Indian Country needs support in COVID-19 fight

For generations, the federal government has failed to honor its promises to Native American people. Now, COVID-19 is ravaging Native communities, killing young people and elders alike, and devastating tribal economies. We are fighting in Congress to ensure that sovereign native nations have the resources needed to protect the health and well-being of their citizens during this pandemic. The novel coronavirus's terrible impact in Indian Country underscores that the federal government must live up to its unique legal and moral obligations to native nations and act as a partner to help build security and resiliency for the future.

The Navajo Nation has recently seen infection rates higher than any state. In New Mexico, Native Americans make up just 11% of the population, but account for more than half of the COVID-19 cases. Native nations' economies have been devastated. And American Indians and Alaska Natives also disproportionately suffer from health conditions that make them especially susceptible to complications from the virus, in part because of environmental injustices that have left their communities grappling with the health impacts of poisoned water and air.

By disregarding the clear health crisis in tribal communities, the federal government continues a tragic pattern of broken promises to native nations. During negotiations over the CARES Act, the major coronavirus relief package passed by Congress in March, the White House fought against any direct aid to the 574 federally recognized sovereign native nations. Even when Senate Democrats and the Congressional Native American Caucus successfully ensured that the legislation included this critical economic aid, the Treasury Department dragged its feet for weeks. More a month after CARES was enacted, native nations still hadn't received a penny of the $8 billion the law provided to them. Only after we and our colleagues pressed the Treasury Department did it release some of the funds to tribal governments.

The government has also failed to protect American Indians' and Alaska Natives' health. Even before the pandemic, the Indian Health Service was woefully underfunded. A report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights stated, "In 2017, IHS health care expenditures per person were $3,332, compared to $9,207 for federal health care spending nationwide."

Although funding needs have only grown with the arrival of COVID-19, the Cares Act provided less than Indian Country requested for pandemic health-care needs. Bureaucratic obstacles forced the Navajo Nation to wait for desperately needed funds as infections multiplied among its citizens. The IHS, tribal health authorities and urban Indian health organizations have struggled to access the Strategic National Stockpile, a federal repository of drugs and medical supplies for public health emergencies.

The federal response to COVID-19 in Indian Country is unacceptable. It's beyond time for the federal government to take decisive action to empower native nations. The American people want it, and our moral and legal responsibilities require it.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, represents Massachusetts. Rep. Deb Haaland, a Democrat, represents New Mexico's 1st District.

 

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