Without as much national attention, the COVID-19 pandemic is taking hold on the Navajo Nation.
On March 17, the first two coronavirus cases were reported in Navajo country; a week later, there are at least 71 cases and the sprawling reservation is under stay-at-home orders. This, in a place with few grocery stores and where thousands of people lack access to running water. Consider this statistic: Some 40 percent of Navajos drive several miles to draw water, according to a recent report on National Public Radio.
Too many people on the reservation, without running water, rely on outhouses. They have to take garbage to a dump. They do laundry in town, not at home. Staying home is impractical for too many.
The recommendations to stop the spread of germs — washing hands frequently with soap and water and staying put — seems unworkable. Using that much water, after all, just means more trips to town.
In the new $2 trillion coronavirus spending bill, there is $8 billion included to help tribal governments fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Those dollars will go to tribal communities across the country, as well as provide emergency dollars for programs at the Indian Health Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education and Housing, and Urban Development’s Office of Native American Programs.
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, who worked with other senators to make sure this funding made it into the final relief package, believes more needs to be done — he wants the next response from Congress to include a specific portion dedicated to tribal relief. Indian Country is too important to be left behind.
Other legislation Udall is backing would allow tribes to apply directly for emergency public health dollars from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevnetion, and would let tribal governments and others access supplies from the Strategic National Stockpile. Like other medical facilities, tribal hospitals and clinics lack protective gear that doctors and nurses need to shield themselves from contagion.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, who issued the stay-at-home order, wrote on Twitter: “If we don’t comply with the advice of health care and pandemic experts to stay home, we will continue to see greater and greater increases in confirmed cases on the Navajo Nation.” He has closed the reservation to visitors, too. That is particularly important on the Arizona side of the reservation, where state officials have been lax in attempting to stop the spread of the virus.
As the Navajo Nation gathers its resources to take care of its citizens, other New Mexico tribes also are hunkering down for the pandemic. The Mescalero Apache Tribe has declared an emergency and is asking citizens to stay home. That’s the essential order across New Mexico right now.
After Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered people to stay home — except for essential trips for health and safety — there was an interesting side effect. Recreational areas on tribal lands became popular with visitors seeking an outdoor escape.
For that reason, pueblos have issued travel bans and restricted operations across New Mexico. Pueblos are closed to the public, in other words. Considering what happened during the 1918 flu pandemic, the restrictions make sense — at San Ildefonso Pueblo, for example, it has been reported by former state historian Rick Hendricks that only 85 of the 140 residents survived the epidemic.
Voluntarily, local pueblos have closed tribal casinos. That’s an economic sacrifice for the common good that is heartening to see. It’s important because, as we have said before, contagion does not recognize borders. Germs will cross from town to town, state to state, from tribal lands to nontribal lands.
By sheltering in place, tribal people can prevent the spread of the coronavirus — whether brought in from the outside or shared from house to house; homes, we might point out, that often are crowded with extended family. Social distancing is a luxury many lack.
In this time of pandemic, it is important to respect our neighbors. For now, tribal lands are off limits. Respect those wishes.