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Published: Oct-2020 Public Health Voices:
COVID-19's impact on communities of color
by Shantell Cerise Nolen, PhD Student, Department of Epidemiology

Oct-2020 Columnist: Shantell Cerise Nolen PhD Student, Department of Epidemiology
Shantell Cerise Nolen

COVID-19 disproportionately impacts black and brown communities of color. But are we really surprised? The United States is no stranger to structural health inequity. And while I could write this article to discuss the intersection of public health and Black Lives Matter, I feel compelled to amplify the voices of a different community. Three months ago, I embarked on a road trip from California to Rhode Island. In between my many adventures, I’d been confronted by the harsh realities facing Indigenous people specifically.

In Nevada, I went cliff diving with four teenage boys and their grandfather. Their family is a part of a local tribe. They were eager to have a conversation about the Indian Health Service (IHS), a federal health program for American Indians and Alaska Natives that is both underfunded and under-resourced, leaving high rates of already immunocompromised people vulnerable to COVID-19 due to limited services.

Many tribes do not even qualify for IHS assistance. A friend of mine is an activist for Indigenous students at UCI and their family is one of many tribes who have been disqualified from IHS services due to government technicalities. Forced to work through the pandemic to secure proper health insurance, their family has endured unimaginable personal loss. Circumstances like these continue to fracture Indigenous communities’ connections to their homelands and have widened the healthcare racial gap. Similar technicalities have burdened black communities for over a century, dating back to the creation of the Freedman Hospitals.

As we know, public health regulations vary from state to state. Throughout my journey spanning 15 states, I ranked grocery stores and park services from 1-10 based on how well they’ve responded to the pandemic. I also looked at COVID-19 response at IHS and learned that some reservations have closed their borders to self-quarantine. This is the case for the BlackFeet Nation in Glacier National Park. I spent 4 days there and the area is closed to the public. What sounds like a good idea actually comes at a huge cost to public health as tourism sustains the local economy, supporting health, education, and public safety. Without these funds, tribes risk going without access to water or electricity. In speaking with my friend from UCI, I learned that the local tribes who manage Antelope Canyon and the crystal walk in the Grand Canyon have risked their health during the pandemic to maintain financial stability.

Visibility is a powerful thing. It sparks important conversations. While out for a swim in Bemidji, Minnesota, I met a park ranger who told me about the Indigenous Impacts Project, a collection of writing and art by Indigenous people in South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota that highlights their experiences with COVID-19. We must listen and learn from the people in the communities themselves.

COVID-19 will end and news cycles will change, but we must not forget that long-term effects from the virus can exacerbate health disparities for Indigenous people. Public health needs funding and forward-thinking programs to bridge these racial gaps. The world will continue to be rocked by unexpected health crises—a testament to centuries of American history. How we prepare for and respond to these circumstances is up to us, as well as supporting the populations that are hit hardest

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