This is part of our Coronavirus Update series in which Harvard specialists in epidemiology, infectious disease, economics, politics, and other disciplines offer insights into what the latest developments in the COVID-19 outbreak may bring.
When the Hualapai tribe imposed a stay-at-home order and closed its Skywalk, the horseshoe-shaped, glass-bottomed walkway that extends over the south rim of the Grand Canyon, last month, it gave its members an added layer of protection against the raging coronavirus.
But it also deprived them of their primary source of revenue. In a Catch-22, by following the government’s health recommendations, the Hualapai denied themselves the ability to fund government-mandated services on its lands.
For Native Americans, who, like other minority groups and those in lower-income communities, have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, it’s a double whammy, said adjunct lecturer Eric Henson, who teaches the field research class “Native Americans in the 21st Century: Nation Building II.”
“Native American tribes are having a disproportionate health effect that is highly problematic, and they’re having a disproportionate impact to the revenues that can be used to take on the health crisis,” said Henson. “A lot of tribes are having the worst of both worlds at the same time.”
Over the past few decades, Native American nations have increasingly taken on greater responsibility for providing a wide range of governmental services on their lands; in many instances the same services that state and local governments offer their citizens. Unlike state and local governments, however, the tribes cannot collect adequate taxes to pay for these operations, making them dependent on income from casinos and other enterprises to pay for law enforcement, public safety, and social services.
With tribal businesses halted and their services in peril, the economic impact of COVID-19 on Native American communities could be devastating, said Joseph Kalt, the Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy Emeritus at Harvard Kennedy School.
“There is not a single Indian casino in the United States open today, and all tribal businesses are closed,” Kalt, co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development at the Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, said during a Zoom meeting from Tucson, Ariz.
“Native American tribes’ tax base have been cut literally to zero, and tribal governments don’t have money to run the health clinic or child protection services,” Kalt said. “While state and local governments are also in trouble, at least they have a tax base, but tribes are really struggling because their tax base has been wiped out.”