By Lisa Dreier
When the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading globally in early 2020, Victor Lopez-Carmen knew that it represented an existential threat to Indigenous communities. As one of the only Native American student currently at Harvard Medical School and Co-Chair of the U.N. Global Indigenous Youth Caucus, he rallied his networks and launched the COVID-19 Indigenous Health Partnership to leverage Harvard Medical School expertise in support of seven Indigenous nations around the world. The group has mobilized funding and expertise, and has built a network of 120 Indigenous language translators to adapt COVID-19 information into accessible and culturally appropriate formats.
Growing up among both the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Arizona and Mexico, Victor was immersed in Indigenous rights advocacy. After witnessing the health challenges and lack of medical care in native communities, he decided to become a doctor to improve Native Americans’ health. A series of opportunities led him to study social justice with the Ithaca College Martin Luther King Scholars Program; learn Arabic in Jordan; complete a Master’s in Public Health as a Fulbright Scholar in Australia; and serve as a Clerk with the U.S. Congress, House National Resources Committee, focusing on climate change and Indigenous policy.
It was only when he was invited to join Harvard Medical School’s Four Directions Summer Research Program that Victor met a Native American physician for the first time, and felt that his dream of becoming a doctor might be realized. He is now developing ideas to build a stronger pipeline of native students and strengthen the Medical School’s long-term relationships with Indigenous communities. On a recent September afternoon, in between clinical classes, Victor sat down to talk about his work to date and future goals with Lisa Dreier from Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative.
Lisa Dreier: How has COVID-19 impacted Native American and Indigenous communities?
Victor Lopez-Carmen: The virus hit both my Tribes, and spread quickly. Neither one has equitable access to health care, PPE or testing. South Dakota lost tribal members, many of whom were elders - so much knowledge was lost, including language, stories and cultural traditions. It’s really scary - our history and culture are oral, passed down from elders to native youth. You hope to pass it down, but no one expected this.
In the U.S., Native American communities have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. According to the CDC they have the highest hospitalization rate of any ethnicity. At one point the Navajo Nation had the highest per-capita infection rate compared to any U.S. state. Globally, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples put out a report stating that the pandemic is still a major threat, especially in countries that haven’t stopped the spread.
Despite the challenges, many Tribes are developing their own solutions. Tribal leadership took action to protect their communities by closing off access, restricting gatherings, and using traditional knowledge.
Dreier: What is the COVID-19 Indigenous Health Partnership doing in response?
Lopez-Carmen: We founded the partnership to connect the U.N. Indigenous Youth Caucus, which I co-chair, with Harvard Medical School - both to mobilize near-term support for COVID-19 and to start developing long-term collaboration between the school and Indigenous groups. We decided to focus the partnership on supporting awareness-building and preventative education in seven Indigenous communities around the world.
One of the immediate problems for Indigenous communities is the language barrier - many of them don’t have health information or guidelines in their own language, which makes community education much more difficult. We developed a network of 120 Indigenous language translators to take COVID-19 fact sheets authored by Harvard Medical School and adapt them to be culturally relevant in the local language. We also hosted webinars to connect Indigenous community leaders with WHO Scientists; published articles and raised funds to support the translators.
The translation work is continuing, and we hope to expand it to cover other types of health information as well. Right now there’s no formal Indigenous-language translation service globally, so our network is the largest translation network for Indigenous languages.
Dreier: What inspired you to focus your career on improving health in Indigenous communities?
Lopez-Carmen: My grandmother was a nurse midwife. She was highly skilled and well respected. I heard stories about how she saved babies, and I could see that she made a big difference in the community. Growing up in the Pascua Yaqui community in Arizona, I saw the impacts of health disparities - alcoholism, suicide, chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and cancer - that I would later understand were driven by inter-generational oppression and harmful policies. There was also a lot of environmental violence around us: pesticide dumps, waste incinerators, pipelines, all contributing to abnormally high rates of cancer and cirrhosis. Seeing these dynamics play out, I knew my people were struggling and wanted to help.
The health disparities hit home for me personally when I was badly burned in an accident involving fireworks in Mexico, in my family’s community with no medical facilities. I was able to return to the U.S. and get the treatment I needed. I spent six weeks in the hospital and had to learn to walk again. That changed the direction of my life. Before that, I had been hanging out with the wrong crowd and getting in trouble. Afterward I couldn’t do athletics, so I threw myself into studying and fell in love with science. By high school, I knew I wanted to be a doctor.
Dreier: How does social justice factor into your approach to improving Indigenous health?
Lopez-Carmen: I grew up around people working to protect Native American rights, culture and sacred sites. My parents were both activists, and they took me with them to protests, starting before I was even born. We couldn’t afford a babysitter so my mom would take me to her meetings with traditional Yaqui elders in Mexico. Later I attended Ithaca College as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholars Program which focuses on social justice. We met with civil rights leaders in the U.S. and traveled to Vietnam, Cuba and the UK to learn about different approaches to social justice. I had never dreamed of doing anything like that. I realized people around the world are fighting for similar things, and that ideas - like Martin Luther King’s philosophies - can migrate across borders.
Making connections among different tribes is a powerful way to build solidarity. Growing up I joined Yaqui and Apache runners in annual runs to a mountain we both consider sacred. In Australia, I researched aboriginal health issues and shared lessons from my own cultural traditions. Then during college I visited the U.N. and met people from the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus. I stayed involved with them as a member, Regional Coordinator and now Co-Chair. We participate in the annual U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues which brings over 10,000 Indigenous people together in New York.
Dreier: What does your community think of the work you’re doing?
Lopez-Carmen: My Tribe has supported me throughout this process because I’ve made it clear that I want to bring my skills back and make a positive impact in my community. They’ve always been there beside me, supporting and praying for me, and that has made a huge difference.
Dreier: How can Harvard and other universities play a role in improving Indigenous health?
Lopez-Carmen: We need long-term investment in Indigenous youth to help them become healthcare providers, then return to and serve their communities. No one can provide care like a member of the community who understands the language and culture. There’s so much untapped potential for improving Indigenous health.
I would like to help establish a Center for Indigenous Health through Harvard Medical School and the Chan School of Public Health. As part of this Center the schools could hire more Indigenous faculty, strengthen pipeline programs to bring Indigenous youth to study medicine, and invest in building long-term relationships with Tribes in Massachusetts and elsewhere. We’re also discussing how Harvard can help support the network of Indigenous translators that we developed for the COVID-19 partnership.
The Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative has helped me a lot, connecting me with expertise. We are hoping to bring more Indigenous fellows into that leadership program. Overall we need to keep working to include Native Americans in policy, health, and business. We definitely have innovative ideas and a lot to give, based on thousands of years of knowledge. But we’re often invisible. Including us would help make positive change for all.
About the Author:
Lisa Dreier is Managing Director of the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative.
To learn more about the COVID-19 Indigenous Health Partnership, see their website.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.