How Indigenous Communities Are Leading the Way in COVID-19 Vaccination Rates: UNM Newsroom
Overcoming significant challenges, Native American and Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities have taken a rapid, innovative, inclusive, and community-driven approach to rolling out vaccination against COVID-19, and there is much to learn from their methods. A perspective written by two faculty members at the University of New Mexico and recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine explains the effectiveness of the response of indigenous communities.
“In the immunization process, we’ve seen what happens when communities are empowered to lead and exercise their own perspectives in terms of crisis response,” explained Raymond Foxworth, visiting scholar in the Department of Political Science at the University. ‘A M. “We have seen great things in terms of vaccination programs in indigenous communities.
Foxworth partnered with Gabriel Sanchez (Faculty of Political Science and Director of UNM Social Policy Center) and co-authors from the University of North Dakota, Yale University, Harvard Medical School and the University of Miami to write the perspective. Foxworth and Sanchez hope their collective scholarship can help Indigenous communities maintain high vaccination rates during the ongoing, collective battle against COVID-19.
“The reality is that Indigenous communities have continued to be resilient, practicing their customs and traditions, and seeing the value of community. These are great assets that they have been able to leverage in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. – Raymond Foxworth, UNM Visiting Scholar
According to the CDC, COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on some racial and ethnic minorities, including AI/AN communities. Health disparities lead to higher rates of COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths among Black/African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, and AI/ANs, making it even more important that these communities be priorities for vaccination. Foxworth lamented that, unfortunately, ignoring health inequities is normal when it comes to how Indigenous communities have been treated historically.
“The history of colonization has conditioned a response from Indigenous communities and that response has always been about community survival, survival of Indigenous languages, sovereignty over worldviews and land rights,” Foxworth explained. .
The COVID-19 pandemic, Foxworth explained, is another iteration of this process of colonialism, another attempt to make Indigenous communities systemically and institutionally vulnerable, through policy and neglect. Like many states and communities, indigenous communities have received little or no coordinated support from the federal government at the start of the pandemic, further deepening this historic divide.
“But the reality is that indigenous communities have continued to be resilient, practicing their customs and traditions and seeing the value of community,” he said. “These are great assets that they have been able to leverage in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
With a limited response from the federal government, especially during the first months of the pandemic, Indigenous communities acted quickly on their own – closing borders and limiting access to their sovereign lands. They were early adopters of mask-wearing and have kept the mandates in place longer than neighboring non-Indigenous communities. They have adopted strict practices and been innovative in thinking about policy responses and ways to keep their communities safe.
Then vaccines became available, and as of September 2021, vaccination rates among non-Hispanic AI/ANs were approximately 14% higher than rates in non-Hispanic whites for the first dose of vaccination and 8% higher for full vaccination.
Above-average vaccination rates in AI/AN populations were supported by state and county data.
“What we saw in Indigenous communities in terms of the push for vaccinations was a networked response from various types of institutions in the communities, including health centers, nonprofits, and other organizations communities,” Foxworth said. “It was a dynamic response ecosystem, which has always existed in Indigenous communities, from my perspective.”
COVID-19 messaging focused on protecting Indigenous elders, knowledge holders and linguists has been particularly effective. It struck a chord in communities that are founded on the importance of caring for and protecting their history passed down from generation to generation.
“The loss of Elders, Indigenous language speakers and people with valuable cultural knowledge has been a huge blow. Historically, there has been a targeted political effort to suppress Indigenous knowledge systems,” Foxworth explained. “And Indigenous communities have realized that if we don’t take action to protect elders and perpetuate our knowledge systems, we are going to suffer even greater losses from this pandemic.”
Indigenous societies constantly value each other and their most vulnerable. It is a historical perspective and pattern that has certainly benefited them and provided a solid foundation during the chaotic COVID-19 pandemic.
“Most Indigenous communities have always had structures and practices to keep them safe and support each other. So, to me, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing this kind of response from Indian Country, because that’s the innate fabric of Indigenous communities and societies. In this context, we see it fully in terms of the level of care and compassion that takes place in communities while mobilizing these traditional values,” Foxworth concluded.
There is not yet enough data to understand if similar trends will be present in messages about booster shots. But Foxworth says when he and other researchers look forward to those numbers.