NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Life expectancy in America had been on a steady increase over the past few decades. Then came the pandemic.
But one group, in particular, was hit especially hard.
This summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released startling statistics that life expectancy in America has fallen by nearly three years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Every ethnicity saw a drop, but none was as severe as the Native American population. Their life expectancy has declined more than 6 ½ years.
"One week, I had three cousins pass away from COVID," said Sally Wells, head of the Native American Indian Association of Tennessee. “I have family on the reservation, and I know they had a hard time adjusting to it - and still do today."
Wells said her tribe, and many others, saw many of their elders pass away in the early stretches of the pandemic.
“This didn’t just pop up because of COVID, right?" said Noreen Goldman, a professor at Princeton.
She is one of the only researchers to dedicate studies to the pandemic and the Native American community.
"Those inequities have been there for a long time," Goldman added.
Goldman's research found a community that, like every other, saw devastating losses among its older population. But in this community, it’s not just the elders. Younger and middle-aged adults were more than ten times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white Americans their age.
“I think a lot of that stems from employment," Goldman said. "The kinds of jobs that people are holding in their prime working years are ones that expose people a lot to viral transmission. These were the front-line jobs. These were jobs that couldn’t be done remotely, jobs for which especially early in the pandemic, there was just no protection.”
In research, and in real life, that feeling of no protection, of being cut off from resources, has existed in too many tribes— for too many years. It was part of why Wells’ parents moved her family away from tribal land nearly a half-century ago.
“When my family left the reservation, there was nothing there," Wells said. "There were no jobs, no food. That’s why my parents moved us to Tennessee.”
Today, the life expectancy of a Native American born in 2021 is just 65 years. For comparison, for all Americans, the number hasn’t been that low since World War II.
“I think what this represents is the U.S. suffers just huge, large racial and ethnic inequalities in so many areas," Goldman said. "One really prominent area is health and survival."