They are, perhaps, the longest occupants of the land. They are the Navajo or Diné. They live on a sprawling expanse that overlaps into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The land is a juxtaposition of nearly unimaginable beauty and an endlessness that seems to simply chase the horizon. But today, it is wracked by the curse of COVID-19.
Getting the upper hand on the virus seems at times almost beyond challenging. The Nation, with a population of slightly more than 173,000, is spread out across an expanse that is larger than ten U.S. states and bigger than the combined mass of Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont. The vastness of the land is immense. And because so many families are intertwined, so too, is its heartbreak.
“Some,” said Jonathan Nez, President of Navajo Nation, “I’ve known since I was young. I wish I could be at their funerals.” But with social distancing along with more than 140 COVID-19 deaths all across the vastness of the reservation, the task is nearly impossible. But his own sense of spirituality has served him well since the virus took hold. “I start my week with faith, prayer and a devotional,” he said. These tools help when offering comfort to families who’ve suffered a loss. “I tell families that God is in control.” But he also tells tribal members that in order to fight the virus, they need to educate themselves.
In that vein, his words have had an impact. The Navajo Nation leads the country in percentage of persons tested for the virus. “We have tested very aggressively,” he said. More than 24,800 tribal members have been tested, “more citizens than any other state in America,” said Nez. Nearly 18,500 tests have come back negative with only 4,002 testing positive. In all, 11.6 percent of Navajo Nation has been tested for coronavirus.
Nez is hopeful that the worst is past for Navajo Nation. Indian Health Services, he said, was predicting that “this week will determine how far we’ve gone.” “I see a slight flattening (of the curve) but at the same time, we’re still testing.”
Other things the Nation has done to lessen the impact of the virus include, “the most stringent orders in the country,” said Nez referring to movement on the reservation. He said Navajo Nation was among the first communities in the country to call for shelter in place policies. It also mandated curfews from 8:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. for 57 straight hours. It was a necessary move, he said, “Because of the slowness coming from the federal government. We had to do something.”
But however positive the testing numbers may be, Nez must still confront everyday challenges that the virus has only exacerbated. It’s estimated that 40 percent of Navajo Nation has no running water. The problem is only compounded by families having to go off reservation to haul it in for their homes and their livestock. Making trips into towns like Gallup for water or Farmington, a city that borders the reservation, for everything else, including food, medicine and other necessities, creates a major challenge in controlling the virus. But for Nez and the Navajo, the virus is just the latest hurdle they must overcome.
Nez calls the reservation a food dessert. Tribal members can’t easily run to the corner and buy groceries or much of anything else, including health care. Navajo Nation also has significantly higher rates of diabetes, heart problems, alcoholism, substance abuse and obesity than the general population. Adding to these challenges, when Congress passed the Cares Act, funding for Indian Nation somehow got delayed.
“We had to use our own resources early on because of the failure of the federal government in getting aid to tribal communities,” said Nez. The nation’s 574 tribes “had to wait,” he said.
And then, there’s the water problem. “The pandemic is highlighting this,” said Nez. “To this day,” he said, “we’ve dealt with empty promises. Legislation in Congress, the Navajo-Utah Water Rights Act, a law designed to bring water to the reservation has not moved in more than two years, said Nez.
But what happens in Navajo Nation also sends ripples into Farmington, the closest big town to the reservation that sits 27 miles away. Farmington is a lifeline to reservation residents. “We walk hand in hand with Navajo Nation,” said Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett. “These are our friends on the reservation,” he said.
To lend a hand during the coronavirus, churches and other organizations have organized food drives and caravans bringing other essential items, including cleaning supplies to the reservation. “We will not close our border or lock down,” said Duckett. Farmington’s San Juan Community College, said the Mayor, has also worked with the reservation, delivering goods to Window Rock, the tribe’s headquarters.
The Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt, has scheduled a visit to Albuquerque this week where Nez is set to meet with him. COVID-19 is at the top of his agenda.