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A Navajo girl in front of a Mesa

As the death toll from COVID-19 mounts, people of color are clearly at greater risk than others. Among the most vulnerable are Native Americans. To understand how dire the COVID-19 situation is becoming for these communities, consider the situation unfolding for the Navajo Nation, a people with homelands in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. As of April 23, 1,360 infections and 52 deaths had been reported among the Navajo Reservation’s 170,000 people, a mortality rate of 30 per 100,000. Only six states have a higher per capita toll.

The spread of COVID-19 is reminiscent of previous disease outbreaks that have ravaged Native American communities. Many of those outbreaks resulted in catastrophic loss of life, far greater than even the worst-case scenarios for COVID-19. Even the 1918–19 flu pandemic, in which an estimated 650,000 Americans died (0.6 percent of the 1920 population of 106 million), pales in comparison to the losses Native Americans have suffered from disease.

Until recently, histories of disease and Native Americans have emphasized “virgin-soil epidemics.” According to this theory,...

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