United States: COVID-19 upsurge hits prisoners, migrants, First Nations

December 3, 2020
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez distributes food. Photo: Navajo Nation

The current upsurge of COVID-19 infections in the United States is, by far, the most serious of the pandemic to date.

New cases and hospitalisations are breaking records every few days, and deaths will soon surpass 2200 a day, which was reached in March when hospital workers were just beginning to learn how to treat patients.

Hospitals are reaching capacity in some areas, which may become a national problem.

Experts predict these figures will rise following the Thanksgiving holiday, due to travel and family gatherings spreading the virus. The same will happen over Christmas.

While many families obeyed the experts and stayed safe for Thanksgiving, many did not, including among the tens of millions who listened to President Donald Trump’s dismissal of the disease.


Hot spots include federal and state prisons and local jails, which the New York Times characterised as “a perfect breeding ground for the virus”.

“Squabbles over mask wearing and social distancing are essentially moot inside overcrowded facilities, many of them old and poorly ventilated, with tight quarters and with hygiene standards that are difficult to maintain,” said the NYT.

“Uneven testing, inadequate medical resources and the constant churn of staff members, visitors and inmates further speed transmission.

“Crueler still, inmates suffer disproportionately from co-morbidities, such as high blood pressure and asthma, putting them at an elevated risk for complications and death.

“Eight months into the pandemic, the precise shape of and scope of the devastation remains difficult to pin down. But the available data is heartbreaking. As of mid-November, more than 196,600 coronavirus cases had been reported among state and federal prisoners.

“More than 1450 of those prisoners have died. The case rates among inmates are more than four times as those of the general public, and the death rate is more than twice as high.

“Inmates are not the only ones trapped with the virus. The correctional system employs more than 685,000 people — guards, nurses, chaplains and so on. There have been more than 45,470 coronavirus infections and 98 deaths among staff members to date. Their case rates are three times as high as for the general public.

“Remember: these are the reported cases. The real numbers are assumed to be higher. The virus ripples out from these hot spots, engulfing the families and communities of inmates and workers.

“The coronavirus does not respect prison walls any more than it respects state or national borders. It will not be confined.”

A minority of those being held in local jails have been convicted of a crime, with the large majority being held awaiting trial, sometimes for months or even years, because they are unable to pay for bail.

The US system of mass incarceration holds 2.3 million people in federal and state prisons and local jails. Many more are on parole or otherwise still part of the system. The majority of prisoners are Black or Latinx, so this is one more way people of colour are disproportionally affected by the pandemic.

Mass incarceration is central to the institutional systemic racism exposed by the Black Lives Matter movement. It continues 400 years of oppression of African Americans, fuelled by the ideology of white supremacy.

Immigration prisons

The pandemic also rages in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) jails, holding some 25,000 people, most of whom are asylum seekers. ICE says that 3000 have tested positive.

Before Trump, such asylum seekers were not in jails, but living in communities, pending the determination of their cases. Trump says they are “criminals”.

Most of these immigration jails are privately owned and run for profit. It is well known that conditions in them are squalid, with children still being separated from their parents. We know that some detainees who test positive have been deported, spreading the virus to their countries of origin.

First Nations

Native American reservations are another group of COVID-19 hot spots.

A major case is the Navajo Nation reservation. About 150,000 Navajo reside on the reservation. It is larger than West Virginia, and straddles Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah.

The per capita infection rate is the highest in the country after New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

The Navajo reservation was hit hard in the early months of the pandemic, and its government took strong measures that succeeded in bending the curve of new cases down. In this new upsurge, Navajo President Jonathan Nez issued some of the strongest stay-at-home measures in the country. In spite of these efforts, there were 2559 cases by November 5, and 79 deaths.

The Navajo Nation, along with nearby Hopi, Pueblo, Zuni and Gila River communities, have endured, despite centuries of genocide, oppression and systemic racism and poverty.

Water is scarce on the reservation and access to it difficult. Navajo Nation member and physician Dr Michelle Tom told Democracy Now! this is due to “a long state of histories with treaties and our relationship with the [US] government”.

“Our infrastructure for water has never been at the capacity where we can provide water for everyone on the reservation. So, you’re telling people to wash their hands for 20 seconds, and yet people are trying just to get water to drink and cook with.”

Economic impacts

The pandemic has resulted in mass unemployment, shut downs of businesses and schools, and will get worse with the new upsurge.

Women workers have been disproportionately impacted. There are two reasons for this. One is that women workers tend to predominate in restaurants, hotels and retail, which have been hardest hit by the pandemic.

Secondly, women are still the primary caregivers for children. With many schools closed, children are staying at home, where they can learn remotely, if the proper equipment is available. Many women have been forced to leave work to care for them.

In an article entitled “No Return to ‘Normal’ for the Global Economy”, the NYT notes: “Long term damage on top of the recent economic devastation would add to the inequality that has been a central feature of recent decades, as people with greater education, advanced skills and access to stock and real estate harvested the winnings of expansion, while others struggled.”

The pandemic has exacerbated this inequality, with deadly results, said the NYT: “It has concentrated its lethal force on blue-collar workers, for whom human interaction is a necessity, striking people who work in warehouses, slaughterhouses and frontline medical facilities.

“Professionals able to work from home have maintained their safety along with their incomes.”

Exactly how the new COVID-19 upsurge is impacting the economy won’t be known until the fourth quarter of this year. But there has already been a rise in the weekly number of people filing for unemployment claims.

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