The Navajo Nation, the largest U.S. Indian Tribe with a population of 356,890, is facing the possible devastation of its people due to COVID-19, as it fights one of the highest infection rates per capita in the United States, after states like New York or New Jersey.
Making matters worse, about 30% of the population in the Navajo Nation does not have running water in their homes at a time when hand-washing is critical to combat the virus. There is also a limited medical infrastructure, Internet access, information, and adequate housing.
According to the Washington Post, the Navajo Nation is living one of the highest infection rates in the world, thanks in part to the delay in federal aid funding, which the Navajo Leadership believes has cost lives, in the latest example of hundreds of years of injustice perpetrated on the Navajo people.
The Navajo, along with other tribes, signed treaties with the federal government over 150 years ago giving up much of their land. In return, they were promised funding to support education, housing, health care, and infrastructure. But decades of underfunding and bureaucratic obstacles have left many tribal communities wanting.
“If we’d gotten it a month ago, we would have made sure we had the rapid testing we’ve been hearing about,” said Myron Lizer, the Navajo vice president and the main liaison with the federal government during the pandemic. “We’d have ventilators. We would’ve had extra staff come in a lot earlier. I have to believe that we could have saved more lives if we had the money earlier,” she said.
According to the Navajo Times, by last Sunday 3,122 Navajos were positive for COVID-19, after only 17,000 tests were performed, and about one hundred people have died.
But the pandemic is just the icing on the cake in a community used to coping with critical conditions in an attempt to survive, between the lack of clean water and the overcrowded housing situation.
According to CBS News, 30 percent of the Navajo Nation’s population lives without running water –making it impossible to implement infection prevention measures, such as constant handwashing, for example.
Although the government’s response was to establish the country’s most extensive lockdown orders, the lack of infrastructure to meet basic needs has been the primary cause of the high rate of infection.
“Crowding, tradition, and medical disparities have tangled together on the tribe’s land — an area nearly three times the size of Massachusetts — creating a virological catastrophe,” the Associated Press explained, referring to the impossibility of the Navajo Nation to impose the basic measures to fight the virus’ spread.
Similarly, the idiosyncrasy of the community makes isolation and social alienation inconceivable.
“In Navajo tradition, communities gather for four days of mourning before a burial. Sacred stories are told. Elders talk to the young about coping with death. Donations are collected to cover funeral costs. In a culture where death is rarely spoken about, it is a chance to openly grieve,” according to the AP.
But with families in isolation to avoid the spread of the virus, burials have become rushed graveside services. With funeral homes overwhelmed by the dead, some families have sidestepped tradition and had their relatives cremated.
Since the virus first hit the community in mid-March, small health care facilities have become overcrowded, and the presence of a variety of pre-existing conditions in the Native American community has made the situation untenable.
Today, in desperation, at least two teams from Doctors Without Borders have moved into Native American communities in New Mexico to help control the pandemic.
According to CNN, a nine-person team arrived in Gallup late April and has been working with the Navajo Nation since, said aid worker Jean Stowell, who heads the organization’s US Covid-19 response team. The team expects to remain there until June.
“At the moment, MSF is focusing on providing technical guidance to health care facilities and communities with infection prevention and control. We are also actively engaged with community leaders and other actors to increase access for communities to health promotion and practical education,” Stowell said.