A friend recently sent me a photo of the wide, open prairie with the caption “South Dakota: practicing social distancing since 1889.” Given the anxiety here over the threat of COVID-19, it was good to have something to smile about.
Our population is not as dense as in other parts of the country, so the number of confirmed virus cases has been comparatively low, but it has spread to the Rosebud. People here are very anxious. Because of the health issues associated with poverty, we have a very vulnerable population. In 2013 a Stanford University Medical School blog noted that the life expectancy on the Rosebud is shorter than that of the people of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
Our notoriously inadequate health care makes our present situation worse. Our local Indian Health Service hospital is small and understaffed; it doesn’t even have an intensive care unit. Seriously ill or injured patients have to be flown to Sioux Falls, 45 to 60 minutes away by air.
At St. Francis Mission, we are working with the tribe and the diocese to do all we can to protect our people. On March 22, we suspended all Masses and gatherings in our five parishes indefinitely.
Since March 13, our dental clinic and our school have been closed. Because not all students have computers or Internet service at home, they cannot learn online. Instead, our teachers design lesson plans, and parents pick them up every week.
When needed, we are supplying food for families whose children normally eat breakfast and lunch at school.
For eight years we have partnered with “Feeding South Dakota” to battle hunger on the reservation. They recently came with boxes of food so that, while picking up vital supplies, 250 families could maintain social distancing.
I’m concerned about the possibility of the virus spreading around the Rosebud and I’m also anxious about how the changing economy may affect the donations on which we depend. Since the various mission appeals and talks I was scheduled to give around the country have been canceled, that source of support has vanished.
It’s a challenge to be hopeful, but I’ve been encouraged by your calls, messages, and notes asking how we are doing and promising to pray for us. Times like these do bring out the best in many people. Thank you for your concern, all your prayers, and your continued donations. We are praying with you that the pandemic will soon pass. As soon as possible we want to get back to all the ways we have been serving the Lakota people of the Rosebud for more than 130 years.