The History of Healthcare Services for Native American Elderly & its Implications for Covid-19 Relief
Introducing The Afya Foundation’s Native Elders Support Project
Native Americans have the highest rate of Coronavirus infections in the United States. Native elders, crucial keepers of tribal culture and heritage, are most susceptible to infection and subsequent complications. A history of inadequate healthcare services and poor infrastructure in Native American reservations undermine Covid-19 relief efforts for Native elderly. Now, the Afya Foundation is partnering with local healthcare organizations to provide customized support to Native elders across the US. By caring for Indigenous elders, Afya is investing in the future of tribal culture and heritage.
Demographic data on the impact of coronavirus across the United States largely leave out Native Americans, but the available numbers are staggering. In New Mexico, Native Americans make up less than 10 percent of the population but over one-third of Covid-19 cases and over half of Covid-19 related deaths.
Treaties signed by tribes and the US government over 150 years ago guaranteed Native Americans housing, infrastructure, health care, and other social services in exchange for land and natural resources. Based on these agreements, the Indian Health Service (IHS) was formed to provide medical and public health services to Native American Tribes and Alaska Native people. However, the IHS has the lowest per capita budget of most government health programs. Without proper funding, the IHS has been unable to provide most basic public health care services (Bylander, 2018).
As a result, tribes depend on funding from federal agencies (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, The Administration for Community Living) and tribal ventures such as casinos to provide healthcare services to their members. However, these programs are not capable of providing the full scope of support that elders need (Bylander, 2018).
Existing health disparities put Native Americans at great risk of contracting dangerous cases of coronavirus. When compared to the general American elderly (age 65 or older), Native elders are far more likely to be afflicted by high blood pressure, arthritis, and diabetes (Printup-Harms, 2010). In the United States, Covid-19 patients with underlying health conditions such as these are 12 times more likely to die of Covid-19 compared to those without.
The Navajo Nation reservation’s dozen medical facilities hold approximately one bed for every 900 residents, about a third the national rate (Cheetham, 2020). Navajo people with Covid-19 have to fight for one of the beds available to them or stay at home. These conditions have propelled the Navajo Nation to surpass New York in the numbers of per capita Covid-19 cases (Choo & Curtice, 2020). Most of those infected are elders.
Substantial infrastructural problems and chronic poverty in Native American reservations further impede eldery access to healthcare. Many Native communities are located in extremely rural areas and often lack electricity, running water, and paved roads. Basic sanitation materials (clean water, soap, disinfectant) are often unavailable and families live in small multigenerational homes. These conditions make home-based care for the elderly very difficult and encourage the spread of coronavirus.
The Navajo Nation, with a population of about 180,000 across Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, has particularly poor infrastructure. Within the reservation, up to 40 percent of households don’t have clean running water, a problem so severe that the Navajo often compare the region to sub-Saharan Africa (Linn, 2018). Up to one third of the Navajo lack heating, plumbing, or fully equipped kitchens.
In response to Covid-19’s impact on Native Americans, the Afya Foundation is launching the Native Elders Support Project, a public health initiative to support elders in four tribes across five states. Afya’s partner organizations include Lakota Children’s Enrichment, Adopt a Native Elder, CORE Response, Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, and the Annie Wauneka Life Care Center. Afya is supporting these facilities with requested medical supplies and equipment such as PPE, hygiene supplies, walkers, canes, adult diapers, hospital beds, and more. Three shipments have already been sent to our partners serving Native elders in Arizona, California, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Utah.
By supporting Indigenous elders, Afya is investing in the future of their tribe’s culture and tradition. Native American elders are critical keepers of their language and heritage. Journalist Sunnie Clahchischilig describes her relationship to elders as a young Native American:
“When you grow up Navajo, you are taught that elders are the pillars of the family, especially grandmothers. They are the keepers of our stories, history, traditions and culture. They connect us to our ancestors. They take care of us, and in exchange, we’re taught to look after them.”
When you donate to the Afya Foundation’s Native Elders Support Project, you invest in the future of Native American heritage and provide Native elders with essential healthcare. Please consider making a substantial financial contribution today.
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Cheetham, J. (2020, June 16). Navajo Nation: The people battling America’s worst coronavirus outbreak. Retrieved September 02, 2020, from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-52941984
Choo, E., & Curtice, K. (2020, June 6). Indigenous populations: Left behind in the Covid-19 response. Retrieved September 01, 2020, from https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)31242-3/fulltext
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