Indigenous Response to COVID-19: Canada v. US

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, COVID-19, Joseph Quesnel

Canadians watching the United States are sadly seeing what the COVID-19 pandemic is doing to Native American communities, knowing what it could have done to Indigenous peoples here. 

The infection rates for many Native American communities is much higher than other mainstream communities, and tragically, the death rate is soaring on many of these reservations. The American Indian Studies Center at the University of California published a graphic that shows the huge disparities in infection and death rates affecting Native American communities. 

For instance, Native Americans across New Mexico, the vast majority of whom live on remote tribal lands, are dying of COVID-19 at rates 19 times that of all other populations combined, according to data provided by that state’s Department of Health. Put another way, they are only 11 percent of New Mexico’s population but account for a whopping 57 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases. 

The Navajo Nation – which has populations in a few states – made headlines in the United States, but for the wrong reasons. At one point, their COVID-19 infection rate surpassed that of New York State, one of the hardest hit states in the Union. This means that these rates in Indigenous communities are some of the highest in the country. 

Many of the smaller tribes- such as the White Mountain Apache and the Pueblo of Zia – also experienced much higher infection rates

Just as in Canada, Indigenous peoples in the United States have all the risk factors that make them especially vulnerable populations in the face of pandemics. Like First Nations in Canada, Native Americans continue to have lower life expectancy rates than other communities in the United States. 

Some American epidemiologists are reminding Americans that in 2009, during H1N1 influenza, American Indians died at rates four times higher than other racial and ethnic groups. 

Medical experts also noted that a lack of running water on many Indian reservations is contributing to the high infection rates because people are not able to wash their hands as often as in other communities. Does this lack of water sound familiar to Canadian readers? In the case of the Navajo, there was mention of crowded small housing making infection more likely. That should also be familiar to Canadians.

People can see similar trends in other mainstream communities. The state of Louisiana quickly became known as a “global epicentre” of the pandemic due to the health disparities experienced mainly by the Black population, which were affected by higher rates of hypertension, diabetes, and obesity. Indeed, the American South as a region had worse health and a disparity in access to health care than other regions. Louisiana – centred in high contact, tourist-friendly New Orleans – experienced a COVID-19-related death rate similar to the state of New York. 

Like Canadian First Nation communities – many Native American reservations shut down their borders to control the rate of infection. The only problem for many is that COVID-19 had already arrived in their communities prior to the shutdown. The good news in all this is that many Native American communities are reporting that they have gained control over the exploding infection rates and are also talking about having “flattened the curve” in their own communities. 

It seemed the extreme isolation of many Canadian First Nations and quick closing of territories played a role in keeping COVID-19 out of communities that could not have handled it and would have experienced high death rates like Indian Country in the United States. 

Again, like in Canada, American Indian communities struggle with ensuring they have enough personal protection equipment (PPE) to deal with the crisis. In one well-publicized case, a Seattle, Washington-based Native American health centre requested PPE and coronavirus test kits from the local, state, and federal governments. They were sent body bags instead of the requested items.

Canadians will recall a similarly eerie situation that occurred in a Manitoba First Nation in 2009 during the swine flu epidemic when Health Canada sent body bags instead of medical equipment.

Besides just pointing out the horrible error that occurred, this should also be a reminder to Indigenous communities on both sides of the border that they cannot rely on Ottawa or Washington to respond to the crisis in their communities. In the case of Canada, this shows that the reliance many First Nations have on Health Canada and other federal agencies leave them vulnerable. First Nations and Native American communities know their people best. Indigenous governments and especially Indigenous entrepreneurs are best equipped to help, with appropriate resources from other governments. 

The terrible experience of Native American communities with COVID-19 clearly has lessons all around for Canada’s First Nations and Canadians in general. 


Joseph Quesnel is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.