For California Native Americans, COVID-19 is yet another existential threat to survive

For immediate release:

California is home to more Native Americans than any other state, with urban, rural and suburban populations. Health epidemics decimated California’s First People since the encroachment on traditional tribal lands beginning at least during the 19th century by Spanish, Mexican and American settlers.

Will the COVID-19 pandemic become only the latest plague to which Native Americans are especially vulnerable and from which they disproportionately suffer?

The vulnerability of Indian Country has been documented for as long as data has been collected. It is reflected in much higher levels of chronic, underlying medical conditions that make them susceptible to COVID-19 infection and death such as heart disease, diabetes, weakened immune systems and kidney failure.

Added to those risks are heightened rates of serious mental health dilemmas such as suicide, substance abuse and domestic violence. Overcrowded and substandard housing on reservations and in Indian communities only heightens the risks and the urgent need to more effectively care for all of California’s most defenseless.

Among those with critical underlying health conditions are our tribal elders who serve as bearers of tribal history and cultural knowledge and often live with their families.

Efforts to protect Indian people from coronavirus are hampered by the insufficiencies that have historically haunted Native Americans and serve to further imperil them during the pandemic.

There is the lack of infrastructure in and out of Indian Country through which the flow of crucial information to people is vital to protecting their lives in the crisis. There are defects in the organizational structure required to ensure funding destined for much-needed relief and services flow freely and quickly to tribal people from the federal level through state and local jurisdictions.

Creating adequate relationships between tribal governments and federal, state and county entities during non-crisis times has been a daunting problem. It could turn into an even more critical dilemma if we are to pave the way for rapid responses and deployment of food, medical, economic and educational resources amidst COVID-19.

It is true that some tribes have achieved economic progress. But the other truth is that many have not. Tribes in need confront enormous challenges as California struggles to provide for all of its residents during these perilous times.

A better and more equitable approach is needed – and needed quickly.

I learned about this predicament all too well, having grown up on the San Manuel Indian Reservation in the early 1980s.

There was a 100-year flood that washed out the road to my grandparents’ home. Transportation, gas and water services were wiped out. Our family was forced to haul food and other necessities to our grandparents for more than three months.

During this period, we felt very much on our own. No emergency funding was available to rebuild the road. After several appeals for assistance by our tribal council to the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, funding finally came through for only a temporary fix.

This is but one small example of the persistent lack of structure and commitment Indian Country has endured for generations. It is so much more relevant in our current catastrophe because much more is at stake now with coronavirus than my family’s long-ago battle to supply our beleaguered elders. Endangered now are the very lives of many of California’s most at-risk citizens.

The burden is upon all of us as a state to take needed steps and do a better job in 2020, so California’s First People are for once viewed as a forethought instead of an afterthought.

Assemblymember James C. Ramos (D-Highland) represents the 40th Assembly District and is the first California Native American elected to the Legislature.

This op-ed was published in the Sacramento Bee at