Since the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020, we have been changing our daily lives to protect the highest-risk populations: older adults and people with chronic medical conditions. We are asked to follow sensible guidelines like social distancing and thorough hand-washing. Although one may have a gut-reaction to put their own safety at the forefront during these times of crisis, it is essential that we are taking the necessary steps to protect populations with additional vulnerabilities – rural tribal communities.
With the announcement that COVID-19 reached the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Confederation on March 9, 2020, it was evident the virus would not stay confined to urban and metropolitan centers like some previously predicted. The experience in China with COVID-19 clearly reflects the vulnerability of rural communities because many people travel routinely from urban to rural. Experts who conducted an epidemiological study in Hubei province, the initial epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, noted in their report: “…most public medical resources are concentrated in cities but are relatively scarce in rural areas. Therefore, prevention and treatment of 2019-nCoV in rural areas will be more challenging if new phases of the epidemic emerge.”
In the 1970s, Jean Whitehorse, a member of the Navajo Nation, went to a hospital in New Mexico for acute appendicitis. Years later, she found out the procedure performed was not just an appendectomy – she had been sterilized via tubal ligation. Around the same time, a Northern Cheyenne woman was told by a doctor that a hysterectomy would cure her headaches. After the procedure, her headaches persisted. Later, she found out a brain tumor was causing her pain, not a uterine problem. Like Whitehorse and the Northern Cheyenne woman, thousands of Native American women have suffered irreversible changes to their bodies and psychological trauma that continues to this day. Most medical providers are unaware of our own profession’s role in implementing these racists policies that have direct links to the Eugenics movement.
Eugenics was a “movement that is aimed at improving the genetic composition of the human race” through breeding. From its origin in 1883, eugenics became the driving rationale behind using sterilization as a tool to breed out unwanted members of society in the United States. With the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell permitting eugenic sterilization, 32 states followed suit and passed eugenic-sterilization laws. Although the outward use of sterilization declined after World War II because of its association with Nazi practices, sterilization rates in poor communities of color remained high throughout the United States.