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Local View Column: Colonial America warned us

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Americans are increasingly looking to Asian countries such as South Korea and Singapore as models to avoid the worst cases of the COVID-19 pandemic, as seen in Wuhan and Italy.

But the shatter-zones in which American Indians lost their lives to infectious disease from the 16th century through the 19th century offer a warning from much closer to home. A mismatch between evolved nutritional needs and available food compromised American Indian immunity to such an extent that secondary syndromes such as pneumonia became more likely — or allowed other infections to increase mortality and reduce fertility among survivors of earlier epidemics.

Similar problems face Indian Country today, as well as other vulnerable communities throughout the U.S.

Most white historians once suggested that Native Americans were unable to cope with the pathogens inadvertently introduced by Europeans after the arrival of Christopher Columbus. These diseases were introduced by germs, spores, and parasites from European and African sources. Influenza, in fact, was one of the great contributors to the millions of indigenous deaths that followed Columbus. But as indigenous people have always known — and as I argued in my recent co-authored book, “Decolonizing the Diet” — the notion of differing immunity overlooks historical and more recent scientific evidence of the contingent aspects of immunity, particularly immunity’s association with micronutrients and metabolic health.

The old biological story gets Europeans off the hook: Abstract biological forces such as differing immunity replace the role of colonial disruption and interventions, including in Native American food systems. Without those interventions, according to an emerging scholarly consensus, indigenous mortality from infectious disease would likely have been far lower. That consensus, which reflects centuries of indigenous knowledge about indigenous population loss, offers a warning from early America to all citizens of the modern United States as they battle COVID-19.

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Even the strongest immune system would have made it extremely difficult for indigenous people to fight off smallpox. But the degradation of available food sources and the decline in nutrient diversity compromised immunity and fertility among affected communities in the medium to long term, requiring a wider definition of the epidemiological effects of disease on the demographic stability of colonized communities.

Here we should recall those other global instances where communities were able to recover their population numbers after a century, notwithstanding initially disastrous responses to new diseases. They remind us of the need to focus on the contingency of health, immunity, and fertility in the decades after epidemics, and how it has likely determined the eventual survival of groups in the long term, as distinct from short-term individual losses.

These examples speak to broader public health debates in the context of the immunological health of ordinary Americans, as well as those who suffer from diabetes or high blood pressure. Both syndromes demonstrate an inflammatory component that is exacerbated by poor nutrition — particularly excess carbohydrate consumption; a lack of omega 3 fatty acids; and declining micronutrient density of nutritious plants and animals containing zinc, magnesium, glycine, vitamin C, vitamin A, and other nutrients. These factors, unfortunately, are linked to compromised immunity. They also tend to affect the most marginalized citizens to an even greater extent, particularly in Indian Country.

The debate on the optimal metabolic state for cardiovascular and other forms of health (including immunity) is far from over, even if the loudest advocates of high-carbohydrate and low-fat diets or low-carbohydrate and high-fat diets might think differently. But it is clear that chronic forms of inflammation from high blood sugar levels, for example, compromise heart health. It is also clear that COVID-19 mortality is especially correlated with those who suffer from heart conditions and raised blood pressure.

We may be witnessing an unfortunate correlation between compromised heart health as a result of metabolic dysregulation and greater susceptibility to the worst effects of COVID-19 in heart cells. It is worth even raising the hypothesis that COVID-19 seems to affect men more than women because of the greater propensity for males to suffer from heart disease as a result of excess blood glucose, among other factors.

The link between nutritional poverty, diabetes, heart health, and compromised immunity affects Indian Country in particular and is rooted in historical inequalities. But as these associations increasingly affect Americans more generally, the exacerbation of indigenous disease mortality by nutrient poverty in early America should offer a warning to us all.

Gideon Mailer is chairman of the History Program at the University of Minnesota Duluth and is co-author of “Decolonizing the Diet: Nutrition, Immunity, and the Warning from Early America.” He wrote this for the News Tribune.

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Gideon Mailer

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