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Coronavirus Could Be A 'Disaster' For Some Tribes In Rocky Mountains, Great Plains

A photo of the houses
Alena Mozhjer via iStock
A cluster of houses near Oljato-Monument Valley, which spans the Utah-Arizona border.

The National Congress of American Indians warned reporters in a press conference Friday that COVID-19 is a “recipe for a disaster” for tribal nations. 

“This is a serious situation that could have devastating effects on Indian Country,” said CEO Kevin Allis. 

Indigenous people have a higher rate of underlying medical conditions and many live in remote areas and rely on substandard health care provided by the chronically underfunded Indian Health Service, a federal agency. All of this makes COVID-19 a grave risk. 

“There’s no mystery to why Indian Country suffers from health care disparities that are alarming and shocking when there isn’t a pandemic running across the globe,” Allis said. “Now that we have one, the chronic failure to properly and appropriately fund health care services in Indian Country — if people aren’t paying attention to that today, then this kind of a situation could be a disaster.” 

Allis and other Indigenous nonprofit leaders at the press conference said the federal government is failing in its trust responsibility to protect the health of tribal members. 

The news outlet Politico reported that $40 million in emergency aid for tribal nations to help fight the novel coronavirus has been stalled by the Trump administration. 

Stacy Bohlen, executive director of the National Indian Health Board, warned that tribes in rural Rocky Mountain and Great Plains regions could be particularly vulnerable. They rely directly on the federal government for their health care, a lack of housing creates overcrowding issues, and the communities are far away from most medical services. 

“Those are such fundamental, unimaginable obstacles that mainstream America doesn’t even think about,” she said.

Economic pressures are also an acute concern. Many tribes can’t pull in property taxes and instead rely on other streams of business revenues, including casinos and hotels that have shuttered recently to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado. Follow Nate Hegyi on Twitter @natehegyi.

Nate Hegyi is the Utah reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, based at KUER. He covers federal land management agencies, indigenous issues, and the environment. Before arriving in Salt Lake City, Nate worked at Yellowstone Public Radio, Montana Public Radio, and was an intern with NPR's Morning Edition. He received a master's in journalism from the University of Montana.
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