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Rutgers professor discusses added risk to Native Americans amid coronavirus pandemic

Camilla Townsend, a professor in the Department of History, said Native Americans are at an increase risk from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) due to their lack of a strong healthcare system. – Photo by YouTube

Native Americans are at an added risk to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), said Camilla Townsend, a professor in the Department of History.

“There have already been 10 deaths in the Navajo Nation alone,” Townsend said. 

She said Native Americans are not necessarily more susceptible to COVID-19, but rather have not yet built up a resistance to it. 

“Almost exactly 500 years ago, in the spring of 1520, Europeans brought smallpox to mainland America for the first time,” Townsend said. “Native Americans were particularly vulnerable because none of them had ever confronted the virus before and thus no one in the population had developed any immunity at all. They had exactly the same problem as we have currently with the novel coronavirus.”

Townsend said their lack of a strong healthcare system contributes to them being at a higher risk.

“The Indian Health Service is notoriously under-equipped and under-staffed. People on rural reservations often live a hundred miles from the nearest clinic,” she said. “Because reservations were established on the least desirable land — poor for farming and distant from urban employment opportunities — tribal governments have often had to decide to accept payment in exchange for being repositories for hazardous waste, simply in order to make ends meet.”

Townsend said these circumstances have resulted in more dangerous conditions for Native Americans.

“Likewise, due to extreme poverty, many people’s diets have been conducive to the development of diabetes and other health problems,” she said. “With more underlying conditions and poorer health care, the death toll on reservations is likely to be grim indeed.”

Native American families also tend to have strong bonds and often live with multiple generations in one household. Due to this, their lack of self-isolation creates an unsafe environment for them, Townsend said.

She also said measures to prevent these added risks to Native Americans were not taken due to an incompetent administration. 

“Epidemiologists have long known that a pandemic like the current one would eventually happen,” Townsend said. “Tragically, we are now governed by the single most irresponsible administration this country has ever known. Many thousands of people will die who might have lived, and isolated and impoverished Native Americans will form a disproportionate share of the victims.”

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