Covid-19 Is Sweeping Through the Navajo Nation

Shortly after the church rally but before the outbreak was apparent, Begay went to a Navajo chapter meeting in Chilchinbeto. She was lucky, she said. She kept her distance, didn’t shake hands. Less than a week later, one Covid-19 case had become 26, and it wasn’t long before people were dying. Today, the disease has impacted every corner of the Navajo Nation. According to CNN, as of May 18, the tribe’s infection rate has surpassed that of New York and New Jersey, previously known as the US “epicenter” of the pandemic. On May 17, the Navajo Nation Department of Health documented 4,002 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 140 deaths.

Owing to the shortage of hospitals, respirators, and trauma care, it can be difficult to find out where loved ones are receiving treatment. One of Begay’s relatives, who went to the Nazarene church rally and returned home to Hardrock, died from Covid-19. “Right now, I have an aunt and uncle that are in the hospital,” Begay said in mid-April. “They flew out my aunt two days ago, and we don’t know which hospital she’s at, we don’t know how she’s doing. But we were able to find out where my uncle is.”

Larissa Martin (Diné), who has worked as a CHR for six years, worries that people are falling through the cracks and not getting the care and support they need. “We know who our elders are, especially those who don’t have family support or limited support, those who have fixed income,” Martin said. Many of the families and elderly that she oversees on the east side of the reservation, in Chichiltah and Bááhááli, lack internet access, telephones, and adequate cleaning supplies, as well as coal for heat or even enough food and water.

“I wish we would be able to provide transportation,” Begay told me. “We do realize there is a lot of urgent transportation need, but we don’t have the proper PPE. We are very short on cleaning supplies and we don’t have enough masks and gloves to clean the vehicles.”

While tribes waited nearly six weeks for a limited, 60 percent distribution of the CARES Act $8 billion relief package, online fundraising campaigns sprang up around Indian country to address immediate needs. The Navajo and Hopi Families Covid-19 Relief Fund, created by former Navajo Nation attorney general Ethel Branch in mid-March, has raised over $3.8 million to purchase bulk food and supplies—about $10,000 per community. The CHRs deliver the goods. “It seems like a lot of money, but it’s really not,” Cassandra Begay (Diné), a spokesperson for the fund, said in mid-April. “We already had a first round of food deliveries, but they are going to be hungry again in a week or two.” Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, a Democrat, called the federal relief package “too little, too late” and demanded full release of funds to tribes in early May.

For decades, tribes, advocates, and a handful of lawmakers have been calling attention to the drastic underfunding of the Indian Health Service and Indian country’s lack of infrastructure. In 2003 and in 2018, the US Civil Rights Commission found that tribal infrastructure was chronically underfunded by billions of dollars. Since virus prevention requires access to information, electricity, running water, cleaning supplies, food, and medical care, many Navajos are already at a disadvantage.

Charleston and her team employed public health and health care providers to learn who was sick or being treated for Covid-19 at the Kayenta Health Center, keeping everyone safely isolated. She had to establish communications between Indian Health Service medical staff and the Navajo Nation’s Incident Command Team, sharing Covid-19 information while maintaining patient confidentiality to track medical conditions. They came up with ingenious solutions—repurposing raincoats for PPE, for example. They scoured the reservation in search of janitorial supplies for the constant sanitation required. But the lack of infrastructure just made everything even more overwhelming.

Charleston returned home in April, three weeks after deploying, with her whole team safe. The Navajo Nation is currently facing scores of new coronavirus cases a day, but Charleston has not lost hope. “We can outlive this virus,” she said. “But we have to look at each step to be more creative.”


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