Navajo Nation — in the “Four Corners” area, with land that borders part of Northeastern Arizona, Southeastern Utah, and Northwestern New Mexico — has been hit hard by COVID-19. So far there are 354 confirmed cases with 15 confirmed deaths. As with much of the nation, the testing picture is incomplete. Navajo Schools stayed open two days longer than non-reservation schools, but the Navajo Nation has taken up strong distancing precautions since then. The Diné have now issued stay-at-home orders and instituted a strict curfew. They’ve also declared a state of emergency.
The seriousness of this response isn’t without precedent. The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1920 was devastating for the Navajo Nation. According to historical records, 12 percent of the population perished, or 3,377 people. So far, COVID-19 has mortality rates anywhere from less than one percent to ten percent or more, depending on a long list of factors. But preparedness seems to be a major determiner and Navajo Nation is woefully ill-equipped to fight off a virus like this. It’s certainly worth noting that 2009’s Swine Flu was four times more deadly in Indian Country than the rest of the U.S.
Why Is The Pandemic Particularly Dangerous For The Navajo?
One of the biggest factors at play is the severe poverty of Indian Country. According to data from the state of Arizona, 38 percent of Diné live in poverty and have an average income of $27,389. That’s half the average income of Arizona in general and twice the poverty rate. This is compounded by the fact that the U.S. government continually underfunds Indian Country year after year.
As we’ve mentioned before, the Navajo Nation only has 170 hospital beds, 13 I.C.U. beds, 52 isolation rooms, and a mere 28 ventilators available for the entire population of 350,000 people. Moreover, the U.S. government underfunded Indian Health Services by $30 billion in 2020 alone. $1 billion has been allocated to (all of) Indian Country to help fight the virus locally, but that money has not come yet. That comes coupled with around $8 billion more in emergency funds in general for communities. It’s been revealed that the White House and Republicans in Congress fought to give the tribes no funding whatsoever from the trillion-dollar bailout.
All of this is compounded by the rural nature of Navajo Nation. 75 percent of all un-electrified houses in the United States are on Navajo land. That equals around 15,000 homes without power. That’s before we even dive into the lack of running water. For many on Navajo land, getting clean water is an all-day ordeal that few can afford. Then are also underlying health issues facing the Diné. Due to a forced Western Diet and massive food insecurity (there are only 13 grocery stores for the whole nation), obesity, hypertension, and diabetes are rampant. Diabetes is so prevalent that one in three Diné is diagnosed as either diabetic or pre-diabetic. Diabetes is on the “high risk” list for severe illness from COVID-19, published by the CDC.
All of this could spell disaster for one of the United States’ most at-risk communities. New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham reportedly has called the White House directly and told the president that this virus might “wipe out” Indigenous populations. The governor also noted a higher number of younger people in her state need hospitalization and ventilators. HuffPost reports that Trump responded by directing officials in the room to get started on building an emergency hospital.
What You Can Do To Help, Right Now
It’s important to note that the hospital has not been built yet nor have emergency funds been released. That’s not to say they won’t. It just means that the time is now to help where you can.
Diné attorney and leader Ethel Branch has set up the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund on GoFundMe (she also set up a Relief Fund for the Havasupai). This is the fastest and most direct way you can help people right now.
So far the Relief Fund has 2,000 families seeking assistance. The money is going to packages that are being dispatched throughout Navajo Nation. The Guardian reports that each package is filled with “flour, beans, rice, canned soups, dried meat, fever and cough medicine, as well as fresh vegetables, fruit, and meat when available.” These are crucial lifelines for many Diné.
So far, the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund is at about 50 percent of its goal. You can donate directly right here.