COVID-19 and American Racism: A Mohawk Perspective
By Doug George-Kanentiio Akwesasne Mohawk
I was fortunate to work with a highly skilled, compassionate and effective group of first responders called the Akwesasne Emergency Team. A volunteer, mostly female, unit serving the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory; the Team saved hundreds of lives and was highly respected by the Mohawk people. We all had certain levels of training including instruction on something called “triage” in which the lead EMT had the authority to make critical decisions as to which patient in a multi victim incident received medical assistance first, then second and finally third. This had to be done during a time of high stress and crisis under terrible conditions. These decisions were never easy but necessary.
In this current situation the medical people are being placed in that position - a national triage. We are now learning that so-called “people of color” are being infected and dying in numbers far out of proportion to the overall population. This is particularly true of urban Blacks and Latinos. In many instances entrenched poverty, contaminated environments, poor diets, lack of access to health care, denial of medical coverage, refusal of the Republicans (including Trump) to expand Medicare, economic disparities and subtle racism are now bearing terrible fruit.
The data as to the mortality of blacks and Latinos is staggering - as if the disease was deliberately inflicted upon those groups to wipe them out and push them even further back into social ghettos. Who gets medical care first? Who decides where those medical resources are directed? Prevention is essential to control the levels of infection which depends on having adequate housing, a livable income, access to healthy foods and health care none of which is accessible to millions of impoverished Americans. I believe this is by design. I also subscribe to the concept that our collective commonwealth should follow this dictum “from each according to ability, to each according to need”. What is available in Beverly Hills should be accessible to the Bronx.
The absence of adequate health care can be said of Native people as well, yet I have yet to read of any national news report which shows how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected our people. What are the rates of infection? How many Natives have died? We are historically underserved by hospitals, clinics and health professionals - we have the highest rates of poverty and also top the scales in every other negative social and health category. Many of us live far from decent food markets, we don’t have automatic access to the internet, we live in dilapidated homes and our schools are in a state of chronic decay. We are the least represented in county, state and federal governments and are virtually ignored in terms of securing support from these entities. The Republicans, with Trump’s support, tried to zero out Native nations from the trillion-dollar recovery package only to have the Democrats secure half of what they asked for. Instead of $20 billion Native nations need, at a minimum, we were given only $10 billion and this from a federal government which works hand in glove with mining and energy extraction companies as they suck hundreds of billions of dollars from our natural resources.
To Akwesasne’s credit the lessons of past epidemics has not been forgotten. The response by the Mohawks was to protect the elderly, educate the community, insure everyone had food, shelter, water and heat. This was followed by making medical assistance available to all and to impose reasonable travel restrictions. Working with other agencies families were given financial help while the use of traditional medical knowledge using plants and ceremonies was set in place once the virus came to this continent. To date, despite our community being located astride the international border and close to Ottawa and Montreal, and that we are highly mobile, only two instances of coronavirus have been reported. This is most remarkable and a testament to our skills as first responders.
The magnitude of this epidemic is yet to be fully realized but what it does is to further expose the naked reality of entrenched racism in the US and this most rotten core of the national experience. Thousands of ethnic “minorities are now dying for no other reason than the circumstances of their birth. The nation must do better and use this historic event to apply economic triage to those in desperate need before the next wave comes.