During this coronavirus pandemic, the most vulnerable communities are oftentimes the most overlooked. And one group that has historically been oppressed, persecuted and neglected in the United States is Alaskan and Native American populations. 

Congressman Ro Khanna (D-CA), Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco) and other health experts and community advocates participated in a video press conference on the COVID-19 Pandemic Impact on Ethnic Populations on April 17. Challenges and hardships are compounded during a pandemic, especially for ethnic communities and vulnerable groups such as tribal populations, the homeless, farmworkers, undocumented workers, gig workers and the elderly living in nursing homes. 

“I know that we elected this past cycle the first native American to serve in the legislature and he has been having conversations with Governor Newsome’s administration about how to address a variety of needs facing tribal communities for a school standpoint of stabilizing economics etc,” said Chiu when asked what plans were in place to support California’s tribal communities. 

Testing is a critical need nationwide and as more is learned about certain ethnic groups being infected at an increasingly alarming rate, but testing to identify how these disparities impact groups like tribal communities is crucial. 

“You know, American Indians and Alaskan Natives are incredibly vulnerable to a pandemic such as COVID 19, given we know the high risk categories for COVID 19 are those with pre-existing conditions like diabetes or heart disease or any respiratory diseases,” said Virginia Hedrick, Director of Policy and Planning for the Consortium for Urban Indian Health (CUIH), and who is of Karuk descent and a member of California’s Yurok Tribe. “The CDC has consistently released data that shows that American Indians and Alaskan Natives have large disparities in that we’re dying from diabetes at three times that of the national average. We die from the seasonal flu at four times the national average. Data from the 1918 pandemic, the Spanish Flu, there wasn’t a lot of data collected there scientifically on race data but early reports in that time showed that American Indians during that pandemic died at a rate as high as four times higher than that of the average American.”

Courtesy: Consortium for Urban Indian Health

California is home to the largest Indigenous population in the U.S., and more than 90 percent of American Indians and Native Alaskans live in urban areas. “We do know we are an incredibly vulnerable population and we are often overlooked and not reached through general public messaging,” said Hedrick, citing a lack of culturally competent information and a need to combat myths such as when COVID 19 reached the states and the use of homeopathic treatments. “There is a historical distrust among American Indians to government systems, particularly when it comes to healthcare. These same healthcare systems that sterilized American Indian women without consent within the last 40 years here in the United States, so when we have these same government agencies issuing shelter in place, it can be really difficult for these communities to trust that.”.

According to Hedrick, the CDC has not released national race data as relates to testing, but California has slowly started to release data as it is being reported. Under 70 percent of positive tests report race and “right in the ballpark of around 80 percent are reporting rates for death.” 

“We can’t really use those two numbers, it’s really comparing apples and oranges, to calculate a fatality rate or a case fatality rate for American Indians in the state of California yet,” said Hedrick. “That will be something when we have better data available and more mandatory reporting of race as related to COVID-19.”