Waiting and White Privilege

This week has gone fast (and has been chaotic!) across the Lake Traverse Reservation. We’re dealing with the mushrooming of COVID cases among tribal members… including in our school community. Tribal members, including elders, are airlifted nightly because the closest ICU is in Watertown, Fargo, or Sioux Falls. Others stay home, in crowded, often sub-standard living conditions, to wait for the disease to abate. Our “COVID isolation apartments,” an attempt to limit the infection of entire extended families, are not yet built. There’s limited or no “contact tracing” happening. Those who are sick are often not counted anywhere, except in the impact their illness has on their tribal community.

The influence of exposure-related stressors on the kids we teach, and on the teachers, is quite significant and still very new to us.

My co-teacher came down with COVID symptoms just over a week ago. He’s home until he is well and not contagious. Four of his tiwahe (extended family that lives with him) are also in my morning classes. They are on 14 day quarantine to see if they develop COVID. 

Actually, it’s hard to know if one does have COVID or not.

The Indian Health Service (IHS) has been in charge of COVID testing. Because I was potentially exposed to my co-teacher before he was symptomatic, and also exposed to his four kids, I was to go get tested on last Wednesday (which is the only day the IHS does testing.) 

I sat in my car in a line of probably 100 cars for an hour and a half. About 20 cars before me, they ran out of test kits. The IHS says it is no longer being given test kits, so as of last Wednesday, there are no COVID testing sites on the reservation for tribal members (and folks like me, who work for tribal entities). I’ve got decent health insurance and can go to the local clinic instead. But, the local clinic has a limited supply, and will only test if “medically necessary.” Exposure, or potential exposure, isn’t deemed medically necessary. 

What does my clinic recommend? “Wait and see if you develop symptoms- if you do, wait and see if they become bad. Then, call us and we’ll evaluate you over the phone. We’ll probably just tell you to stay home and monitor symptoms. If it’s an emergency, call before you come.”

Sooooo… a new reality for me. There’s a chance I might have been exposed… and a chance I might be infected (though so far, no symptoms on day 10 of the 14 day wait). What does that mean?

It means that, like all “essential workers,” I continue to work as I count to 14. My students and I have all already been potentially exposed… so there’s actually no additional risk in my classroom. We already mask, socially distance, scrub surfaces, and wash our hands (a lot!) 

On we go!

I am relieved that I don’t have anyone I can potentially infect (if I am infected, which we don’t know.) I am simply staying away from everyone not in my classroom group. Everyone: no shopping, no visiting, only electronic connections, etc.

And, now to the “waiting and white privilege” part:

One hundred percent of the tribal members I’ve connected with have merely shrugged their shoulders in response to the fact that their IHS isn’t able to access test kits. 

“That’s not the first time we have had to wait.”

“We assume there will be lack of access to everything… from general medical care to COVID tests to doctors.”

“What were you expecting?”

That last one was an “aha” moment. 

I was expecting access to the ability to know if I am infected during a global pandemic in which I am required, as an “essential worker,” to be at a work place with high exposure risk. If the IHS can’t serve me, I was expecting to be able to access testing at the community clinic that primarily serves the non-tribal population, the clinic where I normally get my medical care. I was expecting to be told “yes” or “no” or at least  “let’s find out” when I needed to know “Do I have COVID?” Instead, I received the shoulder-shrug.

So, I wait. I’m not symptomatic, and we really do work hard to avoid COVID transmission in my classroom. Plus, 14 days is not really all that long a time to wait. Ten days have already passed. Members of this tribal community have to wait all the time… and in major ways… for action from systems (healthcare, education, etc.) 

That is their expectation. All. the. time.

“Of course, we have to wait.” 

“Of course the IHS can’t access what’s needed to protect the health of our tribal members.”

“What did you expect?” 

It’s only been 153 years since this tribe signed a treaty agreement promising healthcare and education in exchange for ceding millions of acres of homeland to the United States of America.

Solidarity is not always an action. It can also be a waiting.

What did I expect?