Racial disparities in health care system all too familiar to native communities

Wabanaki Public Health

Lisa Sockabasin is the director of Wabanaki Public Health and interim director of Wabanaki Healing and Recovery.
This appeared in the Bangor Daily News on May 19, 2021

For far too long the needs and concerns of Indigenous people have been ignored and dismissed during times of national crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic we are facing in Maine today. It is imperative and our collective responsibility to make sure all people living in Maine get the COVID-19 vaccine needed to stay healthy.

It is important to understand the historical trauma and experience tribal communities have faced generationally, which continue to influence the community’s views on vaccination and western medicine. These topics must be approached with cultural understanding, while providing accurate and reliable information from trusted sources.

It should not have been surprising when Maine data displayed racial disparities for new COVID-19 infections. Racial disparities caused by inequities within the health care system are persistent and all too familiar to Native communities. Inadequate access and treatment, and lack of follow through with the commitments to Native people, have resulted in lingering trauma, disparities and loss of life.

Further, there are many examples in the not so distant past where discrimination in the delivery of health services, experimentation, treatments withheld and insufficient cultural understanding was the norm in many Indigenous communities. This created a distrust which impacts how Native people view the system today.

This is the history. So, what can be done now, to be sure Indigenous communities in Maine have the information to make an informed decision about getting vaccinated, and have access to the COVID-19 vaccines?

Helped by a grant from the Tufts Health Plan and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundations, we are physically present in the communities offering services directly — including delivering care packages to community members, sending quarantine bags to those in need, offering safe ways to engage in ceremony, food and water deliveries.

We work collaboratively and are trusted partners with tribal programs, governments and leaders to provide needed services, materials and supplies to aid where necessary. From our work to improve water quality, to direct support with COVID-19 cases, to our efforts to increase access to healthy, affordable food and tribal food sovereignty, we are meeting these needs head on and continue to work for all Indigenous people who reside in Maine.

We must continue to engage with tribal leaders and communities to learn and understand what is needed. Drawing on the strength and wisdom of our community is key in addressing challenges. Listening to the voices of the people most impacted is critical when addressing long-standing inequitable systems. Hearing the voices of the people most impacted is healing for not only those impacted, but for all people. This approach will serve as the foundation to continue to solve complex community and public health challenges far into the future.

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