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Voices of Color : Navajo Nation’s Uphill Battle Against Covid-19 in the Face of Deadly US Government Indifference

The Covid-19 pandemic has struck hardest at the poorest populations, including Native Americans. The Navajo Nation, or the Diné as they call themselves, have been heroically fighting the virulent Covid-19 virus since the beginning of March. It had the highest per capita rate of infection in the United States, at 3.4 percent, higher than New York State’s rate of 1.9 percent. Over 170,000 Navajo live on the largest Indian reservation in the country, covering 27,000 square miles, overlapping parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The great size of the reservation alone makes overcoming the virus an immense task.

To the Rescue

When the pandemic erupted in early spring the Navajo Nation tribal government immediately followed basic Centers for Disease Control guidelines. It instituted widespread adherence to mask wearing and social distancing, extensive testing and contact tracing, one of the strictest stay-at-home curfews in the country, and business shutdowns. Like several other tribes, they are blocking tourist visits. All this helped the nation flatten the curve by July, after cases peaked in May.

The tribal government communicates by radio and newspapers to educate people on how to stay safe, protect and care for their families, and how and where to obtain supplies. Internet and Wi-Fi are limited on the reservation, which hinders contact with distant tribal members.

The Navajo focus on assessing needs and getting supplies to all corners of the reservation, and distributing water, food, survival needs and personal protective equipment (PPE). Tents with cots and supplies are provided so people can quarantine close to their homes and families.

There are only five Indian Health Service hospitals with 222 beds, including roughly 40 ICU beds, and seven full-time and five part-time health centers on the reservation. Excellent Navajo nurses and physicians staff these facilities, but they are seriously hampered by understaffing, shortages of PPE and respirators.

The Diné tribe is a matriarchal society. Women are on the frontline of this Covid-19 battle as doctors, nurses, care managers, contact tracers, organizers, drivers delivering water, supplies and medicines, as well as caring for the children and elders. They have proven essential in leading the relief effort. Defend Our Community, a grassroots women’s group, has organized to bring food and supplies to many elders in need. As Navajo reporter Sunnie Clahchischiligi said in The Guardian, “Grandmothers are the keepers of our stories, history, traditions and culture.They take care of us  we’re taught to look after them.” Sixty-four percent of the Covid-19 deaths are among those 60 years and older.

A Hard Fight

Controlling the virus is severely complicated by long-existing social disparities: extreme poverty (44 percent), limited access to healthcare and markets, an inadequate infrastructure and lack of jobs. Tribal members are especially vulnerable due to high rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancers and respiratory diseases. Physical distancing on Navajo land is difficult as most families live in multi-generational housing.

Thirty to 40 percent of the people lack clean, running water. Many wells have gone dry, and what’s left is seriously polluted from decades of unregulated uranium and coal mining, and oil and gas extraction by corporations like Peabody Coal, Exxon and Kerr McGee. Add to this is the equally deplorable lack of indoor plumbing and electricity.

With only 13 full-scale markets, the reservation is a food desert. People are forced to buy unhealthy food at gas stations or trading posts. Many have to travel two to three hours for survival goods — water, quality fresh foods, medicines and other supplies.

The Navajo Nation educational system is in great need of telecommunications infrastructure to provide online learning on all levels, from grade school through university. Lack of Wi-Fi connection makes attending classes online extremely difficult. Fifty-three schools on tribal lands, under direct federal control, were directed to reopen with in-person classes on September 16. This puts already vulnerable students, teachers and their families at renewed risk. School employees and families are firmly opposed.

Ongoing appalling conditions on the Navajo homeland indict the U.S. government’s Indian policies, which have seriously underfunded and exploited the indigenous nations since they were first forced onto reservations. The Navajo, like so many others, have endured a long history of genocide, land and resource theft, and broken treaties. This Diné history is exposed in an excellent documentary entitled “Broken Rainbow” on YouTube.

Pressing on

The Navajo continue to steadfastly battle the virus, with the help of many native and non-native volunteers, and teams of advisors from Doctors Without Borders and various universities. Their efforts have proven to be critically effective in keeping the Covid-19 infection and death rates down. As of September 13, the Navajo Department of Health reported totals of 9,977 positive cases and 536 deaths since March. This, along with few new cases and deaths, indicates a lowering of the curve.  Much more help must come from the federal and adjacent state governments and corporations that have long helped themselves to Navajo resources. After Congress passed the CARES Act stimulus on April 27, it took three months before funds were transferred to tribal accounts. Precious time that cost lives.  The Navajo finally received three payments totaling $714 million. But they are required to use it by December 30, or return it! The tribe is demanding an extension of this ludicrous deadline. Far more time, federal funding, and job training is critical for the tribe to improve infrastructure, especially access to clean running water.  There is much to be learned from the collective work of the Navajo people to sustain and care for one another during the pandemic. Their war against Covid-19 teaches everyone how to defend, collaborate and survive in a communal society. For more information or how to help, visit nndoh.org/donate.html. 

This article has been written by Christine Browning and Ann Rogers

This article was first published in Freedom Socialist newspaper, Vol. 41, No. 5, October-November 2020

The views and opinions expressed by the writer are personal and do not necessarily reflect the official position of VOM.
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