COVID-19 and the Navajo Nation

All across the country, Americans are dealing with a vast number of difficulties brought on by the current COVID-19 epidemic. Whether it be death, illness, unemployment, lack of essential needs, cancelled events, or just online schooling, everybody has been affected. The magnitude and concentration of the virus, however, varies from state to state. For example, as of April 27th, the city of Los Angeles  reported 19,528 cases while the entirety of my home state of New Mexico has reported 2,726. While this relatively low number demonstrates an effective combating of the spread of the virus by the state of New Mexico, it also reveals the presence of structural inequalities in our society. The Navajo Nation is one of several Native American territories in New Mexico. The people of the Navajo Nation are United States citizens and play an integral role in New Mexico’s natural and cultural resources. They are also being decimated by COVID-19.

The Navajo Nation’s population is spread out across New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. As of April 24th there are 1540 positive cases of COVID-19 and 58 confirmed deaths. 555 of the 2,726 confirmed cases in New Mexico come from the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Nation, whose New Mexico population is spread across a mere five counties, accounts for approximately 20% of New Mexico COVID-19 cases while only making up around 3% of New Mexico’s population. To say members of the Navajo Nation are being disproportionately affected by the virus would be an understatement.  

There are several reasons why the spread of COVID-19 has become so bad on Navajo Nation land. Firstly, the Navajo Nation, like all native tribes in this country, has a long history of governmental suppression and neglect. Due to this history, tribes have a significant problem with diabetes, chronic liver disease, and chronic lower respiratory diseases. All of these conditions exacerbate the effects of COVID-19 and require aggressive outpatient care which, needless to say, native communities are lacking. Secondly, the Navajo Nation suffers from a scarcity of running water. Around 40 percent of Navajo Nation households do not have running water. It’s quite remarkable, and of course disgusting, how one of the richest countries in the world still can’t seem to find a way to provide its citizens with safe and reliable water sources; however, for minority communities this is no new phenomenon (Flint’s drinking water is still unsafe). For many Navajo Nation members water must be obtained from a water station at community centers, which could be miles away from their homes. Once the water is obtained, it’s often unsafe to consume. In water from reservation wells, arsenic and uranium are often found in extremely detrimental quantities. Needless to say, without a reliable source of running water, Americans living on Navajo Nation land are ill-equipped to effectively prevent and treat COVID-19. Lastly, out of economic necessity, many native households live in homes with an excess of people or are homeless. When households are overcrowded, as they often are on reservations, or individuals do not have secure housing, the spread of viruses such as COVID-19 happens at a faster and more widespread rate.

Given the vast inequality in the concentration of COVID-19 in New Mexico and the many structural obstacles members of the Navajo Nation face, how can the state of New Mexico adequately and efficiently aid their indigenous citizens? In order to adequately and justly aid the Navajo Nation, it is essential that the New Mexico State Government provides economic relief to native reservations that already struggle with disproportionately high levels of poverty, unemployment, homelessness, and substance abuse. Furthermore, native tribes are suffering from a severe lack of proper medical equipment.

Efficient healthcare facilities, professionals, and supplies are needed ASAP to help fight the disease that is already spreading at an exponential rate. Some of the medical supplies that the Navajo Nation has voiced an urgent need for are N95 masks, medical grade gloves, eye protection, surgical masks, thermometers, ventilators, hand sanitizer, and disinfecting wipes. Many Native American tribes, however, are not holding their breath waiting for state and federal governments to take initiative. Due to neglect and a lack of governmental aid, tribes across the nation are joining together in an effort to sue the United States Secretary of the Treasury.

The Navajo Nation is one of the eleven tribes backing this lawsuit. The main grievance of this lawsuit is that the 8 billion USD that Congress has allocated to help tribal governments combat COVID-19 is largely going to Alaska Native Corporations. In classic American fashion, the relief is not going to the poverty-stricken and marginalized people who need it, but rather serves as a bailout for multi-national, billion-dollar-revenue corporations. The ethical, and lawful, priority of the Federal Government should be to ensure the allocation of Coronavirus Relief Fund is distributed to each tribal government in an efficient, equal, and productive way.

This piece was written for the class Alternative Journalism, which is taught by Kelley Crawford at Tulane University. The ongoing series, “Coping with Corona” is a live curriculum project where students investigate and report on the missed angles of Coronavirus coverage. 



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