Last week, the Navajo Nation marked a day without a single new case of coronavirus being recorded.

Considering the damage COVID-19 has caused on the Navajo reservation, a zero-day of new cases is a turning point. It’s a time to give thanks.

Nation President Jonathan Nez told NPR there’s a reason his community is beating back the virus — and it’s one the rest of us should mimic. Nez and the citizens of the Navajo Nation listened to the recommendations of public health professionals.

Then, he said, “we took one step more, putting those recommendations into public health emergency orders, making them into law.”

That means people on the reservation are wearing masks, remain in lockdown on weekends, conducted a massive testing campaign and put the well-being of each other ahead of their own desires.

Even with the downtick in cases, the Navajo Nation still will have a 32-hour curfew from 5 p.m. Sept. 19 until 5 a.m. Sept. 21.

Back in May, the infection rate on the Navajo Nation was one of the highest in the country. To date, Nez said, around 99,000 nation citizens have been tested for the coronavirus — more than 50 percent of the population — and about 10,000 positive cases were detected. As of Sept. 15, 537 people had died.

The toll on the Navajo people has been horrific, but rather than leaders who did not listen to health experts or who denied the severity of the disease, Nez and community leaders went to work to help stop COVID-19’s spread. All of this was occurring in a setting where many residents are elderly or have the preexisting conditions that make COVID-19 more dangerous. Distance makes seeing a doctor difficult, and for many, access to health care is limited. Running water also is in short supply in large portions of the reservation. A consistent public health recommendation, remember, is to wash hands frequently.

Complicating matters? The Navajo people tend to live in close quarters, many generations under one roof. That is often portrayed as a result of poverty; people can’t afford single-family dwellings, but in speaking with NPR, Nez rightly described such living conditions as a strength of his people.

“This monster that we call COVID-19 took advantage of our strengths. And one of our strengths here on the Navajo Nation is that we like to be in multigenerational homes. We like to be with our elders, our grandparents, our parents, our aunts and uncles,” Nez said. “And when the virus came here onto the Navajo Nation, it took off like wildfire and many families were infected within the same household.”

That reality led medical workers on the reservation to develop contact tracing, better systems of quarantining patients and resulted in a mask mandate early on. That happened in mid-April, and it still exists, as do roadblocks restricting access to the reservation. The people of Navajo land also gave up welcoming visitors, sacrificing the tourism economy because they say that would help the tribe work through the pandemic more quickly.

Now, months into the fight against COVID-19, the Navajo people have won back breathing space. The disease is not infecting as many people. Some who have been ill are recovering. Life is not normal, but it is improving.

For the best outcomes, we also need a people willing to make sacrifices so that all can benefit. But here’s what we also need — leadership, as we had in New Mexico from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and from leaders on the Navajo Nation.

From Nez, the last word: “Listen to your public health professionals. I wish many leaders throughout this country would do that, all the way up to the White House — you know, wearing masks. And you have to be a model as well. You’ve to walk the talk. If you’re telling your people to do something, you’d better be doing it yourself.”

(1) comment

Stefanie Beninato

Thank you for this op ed and the strength and wisdom of your leadership and of the people in following these guidelines/restrictions. What a turn-around!

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