Among the hierarchy of disasters, avoidable catastrophes are among the worst. For example, there is near-universal agreement among experts in public health that tens of thousands of the American lives lost to COVID-19 could have been saved had the federal government’s response to the threat from the pandemic been quicker and more comprehensive and competent.
What makes these lives lost even harder to bear is that this tragedy was not only avoidable, it was predictable. Indeed, the threat to the U.S. and the world from a contagious coronavirus had been anticipated in books and government reports for decades. But not enough preventive steps were taken, and many of them were dismantled by the Trump administration which was more interested in steering huge contracts to defend the U.S. against the alleged threat of anthrax.
Misguided or corrupted priorities, passivity or paralysis in combating threats that “aren’t here yet,” are familiar causes of lamentable, avoidable catastrophes. But what’s worse are avoidable tragedies made predictable by the very government policies and executive actions supposedly meant to make things better, not worse. These are not just avoidable or predictable failures, they are manufactured failures, created catastrophes.
In the United States, many of these disasters are steeped in racism, expressions of callousness, condescension or just plain hostility to minorities like Native Americans. How else to explain budget inequities and administrative inadequacies that recur year after year, after they are identified and denounced year after year?
Take, for example, the Indian Health Service, primary healthcare provider to 2.6 million Native Americans. It’s 2016 budget provided just under $1300 per person. In that same year, the Federal Bureau of Prisons allocated just under $7000 per person for health care. Bad as that was, the Trump administration tried to cut the IHS budget for 2017. Congress wouldn’t go along. Instead it raised the Indian Health Service budget so it provided almost 25 cents compared to the health care dollar spent on federal prisoners’ health.
You get what you pay for, and what federal healthcare for Native Americans has produced is an avoidable, predictable, manufactured catastrophe. Of the 15 leading causes of death in America, all but one hit clients of the Indian Health Service harder than the national average. The exception is Alzheimer’s disease, which is almost always a condition that strikes in old age, something too many Native Americans never reach.
If federal budgeting for healthcare among Native Americans is a cause of ill-health, a combination of too little money and too little commitment has created another institutional catastrophe for Indian Country. It’s called the Bureau of Indian Education, responsible for schooling some 46,000 Native American children. How’s it doing?
Here’s an interesting comparison. In American public schools 85 percent of students graduate. But for Native Americans, the high school graduation rate is just 74 percent, and for Native Americans in BIE schools it’s just 59 percent, and study after study has shown, many of those BIE graduates are unprepared for real life.
“It was set up for failure,” says Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Secretary of Education, one of many to propose reforms for the BIE. Six years later, those reforms have produced little change.
Alden Woods is a reporter on the Storytelling team at the Arizona Republic, writing enterprise and feature stories from across the state.