According to a study conducted by various US government agencies in 2009 following the H1N1 flu outbreak, reports suggested that death rates were higher among Native Americans in the country. This was in part due to high rates of poverty and high-risk health conditions like diabetes, heart diseases and asthma that were prevalent among Native American communities.
Almost a decade later, Native American communities have found themselves hit hard by the onslaught of coronavirus infections due to the very reasons that made them more susceptible to H1N1, in addition to various other social-cultural factors. The Indian Health Service, a division within the US Department of Health and Human Services, that focuses on medical and public health services in federally-recognised Native American communities, has been consistently underfunded and communities continue to not have access to adequate healthcare. These challenges have exacerbated due to COVID-19 for the communities.
However, in the first week of May, help arrived from an unexpected source — Ireland.
Why did Ireland help Native Americans in fighting COVID-19?
A crowd-funding campaign on GoFundMe that had been set up to help Native Americans during the COVID-19 outbreak was unexpectedly flooded with donations in early May, from people in Ireland and those with Irish surnames. In the comments section of the GoFundMe campaign that collected approximately $3.9 million in two weeks since it was set up, people said they were making donations in commemoration of the aid that Native Americans had provided to Ireland during the Great Famine that occurred between 1845 to 1849.
The famine altered Ireland’s cultural, demographic and political landscape. Large sums of money were donated to Ireland, from people around the world, from places like Calcutta to Native American tribes in the United States. In 1847, Native American Choctaws had donated approximately $150, that would be equivalent to approximately $5,000 today.
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The Native Americans had themselves experienced starvation some 16 years prior, after they had been forcefully displaced by settlers from their native lands, an occurrence that came to be known as the Trail of Tears. The humanitarian gesture of the Native Americans towards Ireland’s people was hence rooted in an understanding of pain and suffering to which they had also been subjected.
About 173 years later, comments on the GoFundMe page appeared to indicate that Ireland’s people were repaying the generosity of the Native Americans. “Ireland remembers”, said one donor on the GoFundMe page.
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Why have Native Americans been hit hard by COVID-19?
Native Americans in Navajo Nation, spread across the states of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico in the United States, have been particularly hard due to COVID-19. According to data provided by the Navajo Department of Health (NDOH) and Navajo Epidemiology Center (NEC), approximately 4,071 people have been infected in Navajo Nation, with 142 deaths. These numbers do not reflect the number of infections in border towns.
In addition to the high rates of poverty and high risk pre-existing health conditions of diabetes, heart diseases and asthma that many suffer from in Native Americans communities, they also have little access to adequate healthcare. Many households do not have access to running water, making sanitation a challenge. Due to socio-cultural factors, many generations in Native American families live together in cramped quarters, making isolation and social distancing difficult if not impossible during the times of COVID-19.
With the US among the countries with the highest numbers of COVID-19, infections and a government and healthcare system struggling to contain the outbreak, vulnerable communities in the country will face harsher circumstances in an already challenging environment.
How are donations helping Native Americans?
The Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund that has been collecting the GoFundMe donations said they were tackling the issues that the communities were facing at the grassroots level. Using funds, face masks were being stitched to distribute among families, emergency personnel and healthcare workers.
— Aaron Yazzie (@YazzieSays) May 2, 2020
The lockdown in the US means many families have been unable to access everyday essentials, including food and water. Unemployment as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown has also meant that many have lost their jobs, making it even more difficult for low-income families in these communities. According to a press release by the relief fund, donations are also being used to help families that need assistance with everyday necessities.
Due to the lack of infrastructure, price gouging and hoarding, activists on social media said people in Navajo Nation and the Hopi Reservation, were also finding it difficult to access adequate food supplies. The Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund is among the few community-led initiatives providing a wide range of assistance to Native Americans who have been needing it the most since the outbreak of COVID-19.
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