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Addiction, Opioid Epidemic

When an Epidemic and Pandemic Collide: the Effects of COVID-19 and Opioid Addiction on Sovereign Nations in North America

As COVID-19 continues to plague the United States, cases are documented on a state by state basis. Native Americans and Alaskans are both underrepresented in the media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic and have disproportionately high cases on their sovereign lands. As of July 12, the Navajo Nation in Oaklahoma had 8,187 cases of COVID-19, 401 of which resulted in death. The Navajo Nation has the highest cases per-100 people in the United States.

The pandemic surges in these vulnerable communities at a time when they face another major health crisis, the opioid epidemic. According to the National Indian Health Board, “American Indians and Alaska Natives face opioid-related fatalities at three times the rate for Blacks and Hispanic Whites” (National Indian Health Board). The high fatality rates compared to other races can be attributed to the lack of medical care and funding on these reservations. Tribal nations are regularly excluded from public-funded health initiatives, so while a state may allocate resources to combat the epidemic, sovereign nations do not receive those resources. And while sovereign nations lack access recovery resources, they do not lack access to the drugs themselves.

According to an analysis of the Drug Enforcement Administration database, “Opioid distributors shipped an average of 57 pills per person per year to Oklahoma from 2006 to 2014. That’s far higher than the national average of 36 and just under the number of pills shipped to states in the opioid belt in and around Appalachia…At least 370 Native Americans in Oklahoma overdosed and died — with a death rate roughly equivalent to that of West Virginia” (Horwitz et al 2020).

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a similar set of challenges for sovereign nations, they lack federal support from the state they reside in, despite identical challenges faced. Many lawyers across the country represent sovereign nations and demand justice for these communities both for the mistreatment throughout their challenges with the opioid epidemic and the disproportionately high cases and deaths of COVID-19. Lloyd Miller, a lawyer representing Oaklahoma tribes writes, “The opioid crisis devastated Indian country by every measure. So did lung cancer. But when the tobacco litigation was all wrapped up, not a dime was allocated to tribal governments to deal with the devastation that cancer had left behind and the addiction issues. That will not be repeated” (Horwitz et al 2020).

Find more resources about the effects of the COIVD-19 pandemic and opioid epidemic on sovereign nations below:

Hlavinka, E. (2020). COVID-19 Further Strains Care Disparities Among Native Americans. https://www.medpagetoday.com/infectiousdisease/covid19/86633

Horwitz, S., Cenziper, D., and Rich, S. (2020). As opioids flooded tribal lands across the U.S., overdose deaths skyrocketed. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/national/investigations/native-american-opioid-overdose-deaths/

Indian Health Service. (2019). Opioid Crisis Data: Understanding the Epidemic. https://www.ihs.gov/opioids/data/

National Indian Health Board. (2020). Addressing the Opioid Epidemic in American Indian and Alaska Native Communities. https://www.nihb.org/docs/09182017/Opioids%20One%20pager.PDF

Pinon, N. (2020). Native American communities are struggling during the pandemic. Here’s how to help. https://mashable.com/article/how-to-help-native-american-communities-coronavirus/

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