The Navajo Nation and COVID-19: America’s forgotten people

by MAXIMILIAN BACHMEIER

More than 13,600 confirmed infections, over 600 deaths: as of Tuesday, Nov. 17th 2020, these are the official Covid-19 case numbers in the Navajo Nation since the beginning of the pandemic. With a population of only around 173,500, the largest Indigenous reservation in the United States ranks first among US areas with the highest per capita rate of coronavirus infections. The reasons for the severe impact of the pandemic in this region are multi-faceted. While it is mainly family gatherings and off-reservation travel that are deemed responsible for the uncontrolled spread of Covid-19 in the area, there are also a multitude of other factors that have to be considered.


Firstly, one of the reasons for the extreme vulnerability of the Navajo (or Diné, as they call themselves) are the decades of systematic neglect and massive discrimination they suffered from the government. Poverty is the most evident problem the already marginalised demographic faces, with unemployment rates oscillating between 40 and 50% even before the pandemic. Furthermore, the lack of federal investment in infrastructure led to profound structural issues: one third of people in the Navajo Nation Reservation currently find themselves without access to running water, rendering basic hygiene almost impossible. Another 30% of Navajo people in the reservation have no electricity and even twice that number lack internet access. Consequently, staying up to date with the latest coronavirus news or communicating with authorities becomes difficult.


Although it may seem paradoxical at first, the vast geographical extension of the reservation poses another problem in containing the spread of Covid-19. Spanning over 27,000 square miles (72,000 km²) between the states of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico – an area approximately the size of the Republic of Ireland – the Navajo Nation territory is characterised by a population density of only seven people per square mile. While these seem like ideal circumstances to adhere to social distancing, the vastness of the area comes with only a small number of post offices, grocery shops, and hospitals. These can quickly turn into coronavirus hotspots when people from distant areas of the reservation mingle and contract the virus. One fatal example for such an occurrence is the presence of a so-called “super-spreader” at a church service in Chilchinbito, Arizona, which led to a dozen infections and, ultimately, two deaths. Additionally, the virus can further spread from these small agglomerations to remote settlements where Navajo families live in multigenerational households and social distancing is difficult to exercise.


More directly related to the current health crisis is the chronically underfunded Indian Health Service (IHS), a federal agency within the US Department of Health and Human Services. In the whole Navajo Nation Reservation, there are only 12 IHS facilities, requiring people from remote areas to travel long distances in order to receive medical attention. Moreover, the percentage of those without health insurance is highest among Native Americans. Whereas this number has decreased by more than 10% under the Obama administration, it has remained stagnant since Donald Trump entered office in 2016. These structural issues further exacerbate the gravity of pre-existing medical conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, or asthma which are disproportionately frequent among the Navajo population and might in turn cause a more serious course of Covid-19.


As a reaction to the challenges aggravated by these structural disadvantages, there have been diverse efforts to remedy the Navajos’ disastrous Covid-19 situation. While as of today, the state of Arizona, where most of the Navajo Nation live, still lacks a state-wide mask mandate, the tribe’s own government was quick to implement such policy. In addition to a nightly curfew from 9pm to 5am, weekend-long curfews were enforced for everyone except employees deemed essential. Further measures the Navajo government took include a temporary shutdown of government offices, as well as limiting the number of customers in businesses and prohibiting visitors from entering the reservation.


Still, political mismanagement of the Covid-19 situation on a national basis has been blatant. Besides the lack of national mask mandates and business lockdowns, the cuts in funding for Indigenous communities were especially painful for the Navajo Nation. Admittedly, there has been a federal stimulus package called “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act” (CARES Act) that promised $600 million of aid money to the Navajo Nation, but the funds were slow to arrive and are restricted to short-term spending only. Navajo officials then developed a hardship assistance programme using part of the money the tribe received through the CARES Act, but peoples’ applications for these funds were made difficult through issues with the online application portal; not even counting the 60% of Navajos who rely on printed applications because they don’t have internet access.


For the near future, hopes lie on president-elect Joe Biden. In the US elections, the Democrat won in Arizona by a slim margin of fewer than 12,000 votes. Around 67,000 members of the Navajo Nation were registered as eligible voters in Arizona and according to estimates, 60 to 90% of those voters went for Biden, so it’s not completely far-fetched to say that without the Navajos, the Arizona elections could have gone a different way. The support for Biden might be partially based on the comprehensive plan for tribal nations that the 77-year-old released in October. The plan primarily seeks to fortify relations between the federal government and the Indigenous tribes and addresses the issue of health disparities.


While these ideas look good on paper, the past has shown that the natives can’t fully rely on the federal government. Therefore, they should instead seek to extend their autonomy and ultimately become a sovereign nation, much like their ancestors once were. Whether the Navajos’ path will lead to an independent, self-sustaining Navajo Nation or to their territory being an integral part of the United States remains to be seen, but in order to permanently improve their lives, change has to come about rapidly.


Image: Flickr (DB King)

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