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Journey from Coerced Sterilization to Misinformation

The dialogue around health and healthcare systems has increased at similar rates to that of the pandemic. Fingers are pointed at the lack of ventilators, hospital beds, and testing kits. 

While it is easy to pick at the chipped paint, the flawed structural foundation becomes glaringly obvious when there is less paint to chip. Much like the horror one might feel seeing a panel of their home infested with termites, America’s structural integrity is threatened by its hegemonic narrative – its own version of termites. Exploration of government policies, in the past and present, is a necessary context for the receptiveness of diverse communities to information from government sources. 

A History of Racialized Care Breeds Distrust

Racism was not a singular one-dimensional vector but a pandemic, afflicting…communities at every level, regardless of what rung they occupied.- Ta-Nehisi Coates

History of racialized care has had an adverse effect on communities of color. Racialized care takes into account your race and subsequently, the healthcare you receive. African American, Latinx, Native American, and AAPI populations are disproportionately subjected to worse healthcare due to income, language barriers, lack of research, and implicit bias from healthcare professionals.

But above all, healthcare in the US is informed and shaped by an oppressive history. Disenfranchised communities have been given reason to be wary of a healthcare system that has been used as a conduit for injustice.

Virginia Hedrick, Executive Director of the California Consortium for Urban Indian Health and panelist at Ethnic Media Services April 17th briefing on the impact of Coronavirus on diverse communities, noted the distrust of the healthcare system by Native Americans and their unwillingness to believe in the protocols of the pandemic. And why wouldn’t they be skeptical, considering the “sterilization of Native [American] women existed up until 40 years ago”, Hedrick added.

So what were marginalized populations encountering up until 40 years ago? And perhaps even as recently as 10 years ago?

In the 1960s, President Lyndon B Johnson led the Great Society Project in an effort to eliminate poverty by increasing access to welfare and social services. The backlash came from physicians, white men, who took it upon themselves to lower the rates of people on welfare. No short of a God complex, they believed that by sterilizing women of color, they were helping society – limiting birth rates in low-income, minority families. 

Between the 1960s and 1970s, 25% of Native American Women were sterilized by the Indian Health Service; various government programs formed the Indian Health Service. IHS had found that the average Native American woman had 3.79 children to the white woman’s 1.79 children; within 10 years that number declined to 1.99 for the Native American woman. This was attributed to education and higher income but unwanted sterilization was erased from the historical narrative. In actuality, the decrease in births had to do with the use of coerced sterilization as a procedure to help a medical ailment even if it was unrelated or nonconsensual.

A map from a 1929 Swedish royal commission report.

Latin and African women were targeted starting in 1909 when states started adopting eugenics programs. 32 states rallied together to advance eugenics during which 60,000 people were sterilized. In the documentary, “No Mas Bebes”, a Mexican American woman speaks to the trauma of being sterilized while giving birth to her children. This story isn’t dissimilar to the story of sisters, Minnie Relf and Mary Alice, two mentally disabled African American women, whose mother tried to get them birth control shots and, unbeknownst to her, they were surgically sterilized. Relf vs. Weinberger, a landmark case, revealed that 150,000 poor women were coerced into sterilization under the threat of their welfare being taken away from them. 

Mental institutions and prisons became breeding grounds for such programs and even a law was passed allowing anyone committed to state institutions to be sterilized. Until as recently as 2010, there were cases of inhumane treatment in California prisons and it is reported that 150 Latina inmates had been inflicted with forced infertility

Eugenics was just the start of questionable activity by the US government. It progressed beyond sterilization when marginalized populations became lab rats for large-scale experiments. There are 40 documented studies done on incarcerated peoples and we have yet to know the number of undocumented studies; most studies hurt the recipients and yielded no results.

The US Public Health Service worked on a study with Tuskegee University to observe the natural history of untreated Syphilis for 6 months. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment ran from 1932 to 1972, lasting 40 years during which the patients were purposefully misinformed, misdiagnosed, untreated, and eventually, forgotten. 600 impoverished African American men, 399 with Syphilis and 201 without, joined with the promise of free healthcare; healthcare which was inaccessible to the black diaspora due to their race. Without informed consent, those with Syphilis were not told of their condition. Instead, they were led to believe they were being treated for “bad blood”. To make a bad situation worse, the free treatment the patients were receiving was no treatment at all. By 1947, penicillin was discovered as a cure but was not given to these patients for another 25 years. Not a single one of the patients consented to the experiment and many died without ever knowing their actual cause of death or that their death was preventable.

Racialized disparities in health factors in the omission of and lack of care given to minorities. Asian Americans were less likely to be asked about their lifestyle, mental health, and doctors did not understand their background and values. The same study, additionally mentioned that Asian Americans felt their doctors did not listen, spend as much time, or involve them in decisions about their care. Significantly, not much is documented about Asian American health until the 2000s. 

Lack of Access Presently

Genoveva Islas, Founder of Cultiva La Salud and panelist for EMS, is confronting the plight faced by the farmworkers in Fresno. Fresno has 1% of the farmland, provides 25% of the food we’re eating in California, yet the farmworkers don’t have personal protective equipment, health insurance, savings, or retirement funds. A majority of these farmworkers are left out of the CARES Act and their housing and food security are in question. “We need a just and fair immigration system”, Islas advocates, putting the spotlight not on the lack of healthcare, but on our immigration policies that leave immigrants and undocumented people at a disadvantage. She wants to ensure that the pandemic is not a time when those who are already being exploited are driven to the fringes of society without access to basic human rights. 

Distrust is the Seedling and Misinformation is the Byproduct

COVID19 has brought with it an onslaught of news, statistics, and warnings, both fake and real. Minority groups are struggling with effectively parsing and using this information given their inconsistent histories with the US government and healthcare systems. 

Virginia Hedrick reminds us that in Native American populations, the myth is that the Coronavirus “was here in December and that now, there is herd immunity.” Many within Native communities believe that homeopathic remedies have the ability to heal and protect someone from COVID19. 

Another reporter at the EMS video briefing expressed that African American populations are taking social distancing and Coronavirus information lightly. 

One only has to look as far as their WhatsApp groups to find confusing and misleading information and anti-Asian propaganda.

A doctor on the frontline at the University of California, San Francisco, and EMS panelist, Dr. Tung Nguyen, acts a buffer to inaccurate information:

People within your network may be struggling, sifting through information and misinformation (real and fake news) about COVID19. The onus is on our communities to understand that American history is rife with instances of disinformation and misinformation. Discerning what information is relevant requires collective work.

And right now, more than ever, action must be taken against an infodemic that is percolating through the pandemic. 

Srishti Prabha is the current Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low-income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.

Featured image is a poster for a 1971 rally against forced sterilization in San Francisco, CA designed by Rachael Romero. (Library of Congress)

California Tribes Hold Festive Launch For Census

EUREKA, CA — A kickoff event for getting a full count of California’s Native American population in the 2020 Census featured heaps of swag, a free feast, a live band, dance performance, bingo and more.

“We’re really happy with the turnout, even if it’s for the bingo and free food,” Madison Flynn, assistant director of the Northern California Indian Development Council said during one of the speeches exhorting census participation that organizers peppered into the mix along with the evening’s other activities.

“We’re trying to make something visible that’s been invisible too long.”

The event was held on the evening of March 6 at the Sequoia Conference Center in Eureka, Humboldt County. Flynn and other speakers emphasized that when it comes to allocating government spending, decision-makers always want data — “How many people will benefit from this program?” And across the United States, that means census data.

The latest estimate is that every year, $1.5 trillion in federal tax spending is distributed based on that data, which is only collected once every decade and not updated till the next census, 10 years later. For the 2020s, that “once” begins in mid-March, when mailings will be sent to every known address with instructions on how to complete the nine-question census form.

Separating the dining tables and stage from the child care area and a huge movie screen were tables set up by the U.S. Census Bureau, the California Governor’s Office, the California Native Vote Project, the California Indian Manpower Consortium and more, offering informational flyers, T-shirts, trinkets, treats and more.

There were piles of T-shirts handed out, most of them including messages urging people to be counted in the census and to identify themselves by their tribal affiliation, whether Karuk, Yurok, Hoopa Valley or Tolowa Dee-ni’. Although the census form allows people to identify themselves however they see fit, tribal advocates urged people to choose only one, to maximize to their tribe the share of funding and representation tied to census data that would accrue per person counted.

Speakers addressed themes also detailed in the informational flyers available at the various tables, such as: “50 Ways Census Data Are Used,” “Common Questions About the Census,” “The 2020 Census and Confidentiality,” “Our Kids Count” (the census is intended to count everyone, of every age, and kids younger than 5 are the most-frequently overlooked population nationwide. Native Americans are the most-overlooked ethnic population – by at least 4.9% in 2010, the Census Bureau figures) and more.

“There’s hope that if we show up we can actually be heard and take the power that was taken from us and flip it,” Flynn said. “Everybody’s thinking that nobody exists here and tribes are extinct. Part of what we’re trying to do is talk about the fact that native people are still here.”

The Census Bureau is sending out mailings nationwide on March 12 with instructions on how to fill out the census online, the preferred, least-expensive method for the government to perform this Constitutionally required duty. People can also fill out the questionnaire over the phone and, as a last resort, the Census Bureau will send out “enumerators” it has hired – and there are still jobs available to do this in Humboldt County, paying $18 per hour – to visit addresses that have not responded, starting in May.

People can also visit community centers to fill out the census, which is expected to take, on average, about 10 minutes. Three places in Smith River for doing this are: the Howonquet Hall Community Center during open council meetings and on “Census Day” (April 1), the K’vsh-chu Tribal Office from mid-March to May 8, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m, or the Education Department, on the same dates but only from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

There will be more, such as the Klamath or Weitchpec tribal offices on April 1, May 1 or June 1 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., the California Indian Big Time on April 4 in Arcata, the First 5 Humboldt event in Eureka April 7 and 8 and the First 5 Del Norte in Crescent City April 10-11.

“We are in a climate where this really, really matters. It’s California versus the federal government now,” another speaker said. California has allocated $187 million toward getting a full count of the state’s people in the 2020 Census, more than all other states combined.

Getting a complete count in Indian Country has always been a challenge for many reasons, including mistrust and skepticism of government, poverty, inaccessibility and more. Recent changes and proposed changes, from the shift to online data gathering and the attempt — ultimately rejected by the Supreme Court — to add a question about people’s citizenship, are expected to make it even harder this year to get accurate information about who’s in America now and where.

“An accurate counting of Native Americans is particularly important because of the government-to-government relationship tribes have with the federal government,” Bill Anoatubby, governor of Chickasaw Nation, said in a remark posted on the screens set up throughout the hall. “The federal government has treaty responsibilities to provide education, health care, housing and other services to Native Americans. Therefore, an accurate count of people from each Native American Nation or Tribe is essential in outlining the details of those responsibilities. By participating, we speak for the generations of native people that preceded us and for those yet to come.”

“Go home to your people who don’t want to be counted,” Joshua Standing Horse, the Census Bureau’s recently hired tribal partnership specialist for Northern California said. “Turn the system that’s been used against us to make it FOR us.”

Mark Hedin is a reporter for Ethnic Media Services. He has previously written for the Oakland Tribune, the Central City Extra, the San Francisco Chronicle, El Mensajero, the San Francisco Examiner and other papers.

This article was originally published here.