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Navajo Nation has lost more people to Coronavirus than 13 states combined

The region's hospitals are understaffed and most households do not have access to running water. The crisis has only worsened these inequalities.

Navajo Nation has lost more people to Coronavirus than 13 states combined
Image Source: Rising Temperatures And Drought Conditions Intensify Water Shortage For Navajo Nation. THOREAU, NEW MEXICO - JUNE 06. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The ongoing pandemic has shown us just how broken our public institutions are. Our hospitals are overcrowded, our essential workers are overworked, and our public financial system is overburdened. To make matters worse, this public health crisis has shown us just how inequitable American society is. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Navajo Nation, where the death toll as a result of Coronavirus is higher than that of 13 states combined. Unfortunately, things may not improve for a while, NBC News reports. With little to no access to running water and a severe lack of healthcare facilities, the Navajo Nation is in serious trouble.




The Navajo Indian Reservation, established through The Treaty of 1868, saw its first case of Coronavirus on March 17. The territory's limited health facilities immediately sprang into action, tightening resources in order to best serve the patients of the Navajo Nation. Dr. Diana Hu, a pediatrician at one of the reservation hospitals, explained, "We basically changed our hospital from an acute care hospital and an ambulatory care clinic to one that could take care of respiratory care patients. And that transition happened over a period of about seven days." Soon enough, one case became two cases. Then, because of the exponential nature of the virus, two cases became 20. As of Monday this week, the Navajo Nation, which spans across three states, reported 1,197 confirmed cases.



This means the region has a per capita infection rate 10 times higher than its neighbor, Arizona. They also have the third-highest infection rate in the entire country, narrowly trailing behind New Jersey and New York, the worst-hit state in America. A total of 44 people have already died. This is more than in 14 other states, and more than 13 states combined. Residents of the Navajo Nation are particularly at risk due to the prevalence of chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. However, even though there are only 12 healthcare facilities across 27,000 square miles, the reservation is doing everything it can to battle the ongoing pandemic that's only going to get worse.



The negative outlook is based on evidence from the last time the Navajo Nation confronted a public health crisis. In 2009, the H1N1 flu epidemic crippled the Navajo Nation; Native Americans passed away at four to five times the rate of other Americans. "We don't know what's going to happen," Dr. Hu stated. "We don't know if there's lasting immunity. We don't know if you can get re-infected." In order to deal with the disease, medical professionals have had to pivot their expertise to where they are most needed. Dr. Hu shared, "We have dietitians that are in the screening tent. We have orthopedic surgeons that are doing triage." At the Navajo-run hospital in Tuba City, Arizona, where she has practiced for the past three and a half decades, there is currently no shortage of beds or Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). However, this may quickly change if the pandemic is not controlled.



Another reason why the Navajo Nation is terribly underprepared for such a crisis is the lack of public funds. "Our federal government, since treaties were signed in the late 19th and early 20th century, has broken promise after promise after promise," said Allison Barlow, director of the Center for American Indian Health (CAIH) at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health. "And what we're seeing today is the accumulation of those broken promises and where it has left people. There has been chronic underfunding of the health systems and infrastructure, from electricity to plumbing to water supplies. All of these things are inflaming the epidemic right now."




So far, the Navajo Nation has spent a total of $4 million out of its own pocket according to President Jonathan Nez. He stated, "I'm keeping all these receipts, because, after this emergency operation, I'll be giving those receipts to Uncle Sam for full reimbursement." It does not help that the reservation's traditional forms of income, like coal mines and casinos, have been forced to close as a way to stop the further spread of the illness. Further to this, though the region received advice about best practices regarding safety and hygiene, most of it rings hollow to the community's residents. Dr. Loretta Christensen, chief medical officer for the Navajo Nation at the federal government's Indian Health Service, shared, "You're telling people, 'Wash your hands for 20 seconds multiple times a day,' and they don't have running water. Or you're saying, 'Go buy groceries for two or three weeks and shelter in place and don't come out,' but people can't afford groceries for two or three weeks. So it's just a setup for frustration and concern by the population here."




While the federal government works out a solution that works for Native Indian reservations, if you would like to help, you can donate to the official Navajo Nation fund. Visit the Navajo Nation Department of Health website, call (928) 871-6206, or email in order to make a donation. The fund, President Nez said, would be used to purchase medical supplies and personal protective equipment for Navajo healthcare workers, law enforcement, and communities.



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