Vaccine reluctance is fatal among Native Americans

Michael Smith is a professor at Emporia State University.

It’s rare these days to find a political message that breaks the usual red and blue partisan divide – but I saw one this weekend. From the back of a pickup truck, a small bumper sticker looked at me that showed an Indian in full headgear who looked stoic and sad. The message read: “Trust the government.” I have found the message sarcastic to tell us that “the government” cannot be trusted because of the sad history of the abuse of Native Americans in this country. The message is a little different from others we hear today. More often we hear someone condemning critical racial theory and vaccines together. Instead, it relies on our country’s tough history of race as a reason to be suspicious of anything related to government. This is an interesting twist, but still terrible advice. In fact, Native Americans need to get the COVID vaccine right away.

A new report from the Brookings Institution shows the cost of not vaccinating. The report, titled “Alaskan American Indians and Native Americans Die at Shocking Rates of COVID-19,” suggests that Native American deaths occur more among young people than among other races. But many famous elders have also died. These statistics are often hidden because in many states the Indo-Alaskan Native American population is replaced with an asterisk due to their small size. Brookings researchers have unearthed the terrible truth: of all races, the first are Americans the Percent of the population hardest hit by COVID deaths.

The Brookings paper finds many states where Native American COVID deaths relative to population are much higher than whites – for example, ten times higher in New Mexico. The news is better in Kansas. An article dated September 23 in the Topeka Capital Journal concluded that Native American vaccination rates in Kansas are roughly the same as for the general population. Nonetheless, author Andrew Bahl noted that this population has a “traditional distrust of government” and that bureaucratic bureaucracy complicates vaccination. This is precisely why conspiracy theories about “government” fail. Our system is a complex, overlapping system of federal, state and local government, for-profit and not-for-profit entities working on government contracts, etc. What we have here is not the Government at all, however Governments–and their interrelationships can certainly complicate things.

From the Bureau of Indian Affairs to state and local agencies, not enough is being done to tackle this crisis, and the problem appears to be worse in other states than here. Yet, as Bahl noted, Indians are still very suspicious of anything government related for good reason and can therefore refuse to be vaccinated. But today’s US Center for Disease Control, state and local health officials have little to do with this country’s dire history of Native American people. Refusing vaccinations or spreading conspiracy theories that say otherwise leads to preventable deaths. We must face our country’s history honestly, but today our governments blame for Native American COVID deaths because we do too little, not too much.

Michael Smith is a professor at Emporia State University.

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