Nine months into a pandemic, COVID-19 has impacted Montanans in every corner of the state. More than 800 Montanans have lost their lives to the virus and many others have gotten sick and are experiencing long-term impacts that we don’t yet understand. Others have experienced a job loss, a lack of pay while sick or in quarantine, or being forced out of the workforce to provide childcare. Businesses and schools are struggling to maintain staffing and continue providing services to their communities.
It’s clear that every Montanan has been touched in some way by this virus — but it’s undeniable that Montana Indians have been hit especially hard. Despite making up 7% of the state population, Native Americans have made up 15% of the state’s total cases. And of those who have died, 27% are Native American.
Last week a legislative committee convened to determine if it would enact public health and safety measures to conduct the 2021 session. When a member of the American Indian Caucus and Crow Nation advocated for common-sense precautions and offered a personal story of how her community has been devastated by the virus, another legislator called her “emotional” and dismissed her experience. It’s disrespectful to dismiss a colleague, but it’s dangerous to dismiss COVID-19.
If legislators come to the capitol in January without precautions in place, the virus will spread unchecked. It’s why businesses, schools, and local governments asked the Legislature to convene virtually or take bare minimum precautions such as wearing masks and social distancing. Our caucus members have not only heard the pleas from constituents asking for common-sense measures to protect their safety and rehabilitate the economy, they have experienced first hand the destruction this virus can do.
The committee will vote Dec. 16 on how the session will be conducted. We encourage them to hear our stories and uphold their responsibility to create a safe environment where the public can participate. Our communities have a long tradition, and a constitutional right, to make their voices heard. All we ask is that we have some basic safety measures in place to ensure Montanans are safe when they participate in our democratic process.
We can all agree that this has been a challenging year. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel, with promising vaccines meeting key requirements and nearing distribution soon. But the communities that we represent, who have already borne such heavy burdens during this crisis, deserve a safe working space with consistent safety measures.
The Montana American Indian Caucus includes Sen. Shane A. Morigeau, Sen. Susan A. Webber, Sen. Mike Fox, Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, Rep. Marvin Weatherwax, Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, Rep. Rynalea Whiteman Pena; Rep. Frank Smith, and Rep. Donavon Hawk.
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