Three U.S. bishops said in a joint statement May 13 they are "heartbroken" that Native Americans and other indigenous people in the United States "continue to greatly suffer from the COVID-19 epidemic" and at "disproportionately high rates" compared to other U.S. communities.
They also are "concerned about the lack of sufficient resources to respond to the crisis" in these communities.
"As native communities continue to greatly suffer from the COVID-19 epidemic, the church is developing ways to draw upon its deep roots in the person of Jesus to foster strength, charity and support to those who are sick and those who have died," said the bishops.
"We cherish our close connections to native communities through our Catholic parishes, missions and schools. We recall once more our profound desire to develop pathways to hope," they added.
Signing the statement were Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, chairman of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism; Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, chairman of USCCB's Domestic Justice and Human Development; and Bishop James S. Wall of Gallup, New Mexico, chairman of the USCCB's Subcommittee on Native American Affairs.
"We are especially mindful of the Navajo Nation where people are being infected with the coronavirus at some of the highest rates in the country," the prelates said. "We hold in prayer our brothers and sisters who are suffering and grieving in these communities, and we stand with them in calling for a robust response to the pandemic in their lands."
They said the current pandemic "is exacerbating health disparities and long-standing social inequalities facing native and indigenous communities."
The bishops noted that "adequate funding" has "long been a challenge" for the Indian Health Service, or IHS, which is a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and pointed to reports IHS has "shortages of medical personnel and hospital beds." The agency provides comprehensive health care services to nearly 2 million Native Americans and native peoples in Alaska.
Archbishop Coakley and Bishops Fabre and Wall said they hoped the Senate's unanimous confirmation of a new IHS director April 22 "affirms the recognition for the need of a strong advocate for the health needs of tribal communities."
"It is also good that additional resources were allocated in recent legislation, and it is essential that this funding reach its intended recipients as soon as possible," they said.
Rear Adm. Michael Weahkee, nominated by President Donald Trump last October, is the new IHS director. An enrolled citizen of the Zuni Indian Tribe, he had been serving as the principal deputy director and acting director of the agency since the last year of the Obama administration.
The bishops added: "We implore lawmakers and government officials to protect the life and dignity of native and indigenous peoples by working with tribal leaders to ensure strong support and ample resources to protect their communities, including resources to adequately respond to large native populations living in urban areas and resources devoted to addressing underlying medical conditions that increase the threat of COVID-19 for native populations."