The Navajo Nation Has a Higher Per Capita Rate of COVID-19 Infection Than NYC—Here’s What You Need To Know (and How To Help)
This week looks at the impact of COVID-19 on the Navajo Nation, and the systemic marginalization that has created vast inequities in basic infrastructure. This is part of our recurring series analyzing how racism exacerbates the impact of this global pandemic—you can catch up here.
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1. Donate to the local mutual aid fund Families to Families Ajooba’ Hasin, a grassroots mutual aid fund organized by ThunderVoice Eagle and his sister Alicia to support in the Bodaway/Gap area of Navajo Nation.
2. Visit the Tribal Communities COVID-19 Action Doc, organized by Diné poet Kinsale Hueston, to stay up to date with recent needs on the ground in Navajo Nation.
As COVID-19 continues to ravage the country, none have felt its impact more acutely than the Navajo Nation (the Diné People), the second largest Native American tribe. As of July 5, over 8,200 people have tested positive for the virus (according to the IHS), resulting in a higher per capita infection rate than New York and New Jersey (Native News). The death toll equates to a death rate of 177 per 100,000 (latest stats show 375 total)—more than 16 states, including Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota (The Guardian).
This is because of long-time systemic racism against the Native community. After the expansion of the U.S. westwards forced thousands of Navajo to leave their homes, America reserved a stretch of land where they could maintain an illusion of sovereignty. The federal government pledged to support Navajo Nation with necessary infrastructure—like funding for education, health care, and other services. But as the coronavirus has swept through the reservation, it has underscored many of the unkept promises that have created social and economic inequalities that continue to affect the tribe, exacerbating the impact of the virus (BBC).
As a result, the Navajo community has limited access to the essentials. The Navajo Nation is a food desert with only 13 grocery stores (NPR). One-third of residents do not have running water, and in some towns, it’s 90 percent (Bloomberg Law). Staying at home and social distancing become problematic when residents have to travel and congregate frequently to get access to basic needs. And preventative measures like handwashing become incredibly difficult to practice without running water at home.
Beyond that, information—particularly regarding the rapid developments of COVID-19—is difficult to access. According to the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, 60 percent of Navajo lack Internet access, which means many people can’t hear regular announcements from public health officials or tune in to frequent Facebook Live town halls with the Nation's president (NPR).
The underfunded health-care system isn’t designed to meet basic needs, let alone a global public health crisis. The United States allocates just $3,943 per person for health care for Native Americans through the Indian Health Service, less than half the $8,602 spent by the Bureau of Prisons for health care per prisoner (NYTimes).
Fatality rates from COVID-19 are higher partially because of higher levels of pre-existing conditions, like asthma, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease (NYTimes). As the virus peaked, the Navajo Nation sent the patients in most dire condition from the reservation to hospitals equipped with ICUs in neighboring states. But this may not be possible in the future, given that over 80 percent of Arizona’s adult ICU beds are full—almost 40 percent with COVID-19 patients (The Guardian). It will continue to prove difficult as the virus surges (NPR).
On March 27, the Trump administration pledged $8 billion in CARES Act funding to tribal governments across the country, which was desperately needed; by March 20, less than a month after the pandemic hit the reservation, the tribe already had spent $4 million on COVID-19 response efforts (AZ Central). But it took over 80 days, numerous lawsuits, and public pressure for the Trump administration to pay tribal nations the COVID-19 relief they were promised by the federal government (Indianz). The Navajo Nation only received $600 million in May, a “Band-Aid” to fix the systemic issues preventing adequate support for the community (NPR).
Despite this, about 25 percent of the population on the reservation have been tested, one of the highest rates anywhere. In comparison, Arizona has tested 5 percent of its population, and nationwide the figure stands at 8 percent, according to the Covid Tracking Project. Mutual aid—community-driven, volunteer support that benefits all—have made this possible.
ThunderVoice Eagle, an artist and local leader of Navajo (Diné) and Totonoc descent, shares more about how his community is responding to the impact of COVID-19
The rapid response of the Navajo Community to build emergency mutual aid relief groups has been incredible. Rather than waiting on the government to fail the Diné people once again, the local communities have organized and mobilized to take care of one another, primarily led by women (a nod to the history of a matriarchal community).
From Ordenda Tribe and designer BYellowtail’s collaboration to get thousands of masks to remote parts of Navajo Nation, to Ethel Branch’s massive COVID-19 Relief fund that’s raised over $4 million for mutual aid, to Kinsale Hueston’s social media campaign highlighting the disparities Navajo Nation faces in every sector of society and raising support for a wide range of mutual aid groups, to the Families to Families fund initiated by my sisters on the frontlines in my home Chapter of Navajo Nation (Bodaway/Gap), we have seen an overnight response that has transformed our community and saved lives.
“Though the systems that my people face are often stacked against us intentionally, we have come together to care for each other when others have once again failed.”
Following in the push for the change of racist names and terminology in pop culture (BBC), along with the removal of colonizing statues (Indian Country Today), just this week’s traction has grown to get rid of dehumanizing mascots (Illuminatives). On July 3rd and 4th, the Sioux Nation has once again mobilized to put pressure on the government to return the sacred Black Hills land that was promised to them in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 (Newsweek). Discussions have been elevated around food sovereignty, access to adequate health care, Tribal Sovereignty, land rights, land reparations, combatting appropriation, and water rights.
The Diné people, along with many other sovereign Native Nations, will use the momentum our mutual care during COVID-19 has grown to push further for equity for our people.
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