A Hard Hit to the Navajo Nation

The Navajo Nation now has the highest infection rate of COVID-19 in the U.S., surpassing that of New York and New Jersey.


Nate Lentz

Students in the A.P. U.S. History classes at Bronx Science learn about past treaties between the United States and Native Americans.

On March 17, 2020, the Coronavirus pandemic hit the Navajo Nation with its first COVID-19 case. Since then, the number of cases has skyrocketed. The Navajo Nation now holds the record for the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rate in the United States. With limited healthcare facilities over a 27,000 square mile radius, curfews and safety precautions can only do so much to help those affected. The measures enforced by Navajo officials to slow down the spread of the infection have simply not been enough, and as the number of cases continues to rise, many have turned to the root of the problem: centuries of neglect and broken promises by the U.S. government. 

According to the Navajo Department of Health, over 4,800 cases have been reported out of the reservation’s 173,000 residents, a startling rate of 2,775 cases per 100,000 people. For reference, New York state has 1,880 cases per 100,000 people. Strict stay-at-home orders and weekend lockdowns have been in place for months, but with limited sanitation supplies and hospitals, the Navajo Nation is looking at an uphill mountain with COVID-19. 

In a statement made by Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, the Navajos’ towering number of detected cases can be partly accredited to the increased and efficient testing capacity, which is at a rate of 14.6%, the highest in the country. With over 25,000 tests performed and many more to come, it is evident that the spread of COVID-19 will continue to rise as tests reveal more and more positive cases. In fact, after amassing 157 deaths already, experts predict that the number of cases peaked in mid-May 2020.

While testing has contributed to the growing case number, it only accounts for a small percent of the real cause: the lack of running water, healthcare facilities, and resources available to the Navajo Nation. We are all familiar with washing our hands for at least 20 seconds, but for the Navajos, many of whom do not have access to clean, running water, this is unfeasible. According to the John Hopkins Center for American Indian Health (CAIH), almost 40% of the Navajo population does not have running water, creating a favorable environment for the virus to spread. And just like the limited health systems in place, there are very few grocery stores available to residents, resulting in large gatherings of people in tight and crowded areas. This makes social distancing difficult to maintain. 

The insufficient funding for electricity, plumbing, and healthcare facilities lands the Navajo Nation deeper in, like throwing fuel on an already unstable fire. “Not many people know how much of a devastating impact COVID-19 has had on indigenous people, specifically. Since a good fraction of the Navajo Nation doesn’t have running water and multiple generations live within a single home, it creates a situation where the safety measures that they have taken are not applicable or helpful in their position,” said Trish Majumdar ’22. 

When people do not have access to basic necessities such as food and water, it leads to a string of frustration and vulnerability, making for a very easy target in the fight against COVID-19. A lot of these issues can be traced back to the U.S. government, which has always neglected to uphold its promises to the indigenous people. Dating back to the late 19th century, treaties signed by the federal government stated that the U.S. would fund healthcare costs for indigenous tribes. Despite this agreement, the U.S. still fails to provide much-needed funding for the Navajo Nation, resulting in a $4 million deficit in the tribe’s own funds to assist healthcare workers and those affected. 

The severe underfunding and damage done to the Navajo Nation’s health systems and utilities ultimately stems from these broken promises, and it has left the people weakened and vulnerable. “The U.S. is not doing nearly enough to help the indigenous people. Helping the indigenous people during this pandemic should have been a top priority due to the constant oppression that the U.S. has imposed upon them throughout history,” said Delara Moussavi ’22. 

Where the U.S. failed to show support, many other organizations have stepped in to provide assistance. The Center for American Indian Health (CAIH) has built hand-washing stations, delivered care packages of food and water, and supplied the reservation with medical and cleaning products. The Community Outreach and Patient Empowerment program (COPE) has also made efforts aimed towards COVID-19 relief by turning local motels into respiratory care hospitals for the homeless. Ireland has even stepped in and made numerous donations to the Navajo Nation to repay a favor made a hundred years ago during the Irish Potato Famine. 

“COVID-19 has impacted the lives of these indigenous tribes to a great extent, where families are dying as the diseases pass quickly from one individual to the next. It’s not even in their control either as they are doing the best they can to live through this difficult time,” said Majumdar. The coronavirus has certainly uprooted the lives of many in the Navajo Nation, and as residents continue to battle COVID-19, they are hoping for the best while planning for the worst. Hopefully with increased lockdown procedures and a little help from the outside, their numbers will go down.

“The U.S. is not doing nearly enough to help the indigenous people. Helping the indigenous people during this pandemic should have been a top priority due to the constant oppression that the U.S. has imposed upon them throughout history,” said Delara Moussavi ’22.