The Navajo Nation is a territory in the southwest of the United States. It exists in portions of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico and is larger than several US states. It has an area approximately the size of New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island combined (also comparable to the size of West Virginia). The Navajo Nation is the largest area of land still maintained by an indigenous population in the United States, and has a population of approximately 350,000.
If the Navajo Nation were considered a state by the US government, it would be the state with the third highest rate of COVID-19 infection. This was a shocking fact to me, as I had heard little to nothing about it in the news. How can it go unnoticed that the Navajo Nation is just behind New Jersey in cases per-capita? In the short month since the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in the Navajo Nation, more than 2,373 people have been infected and 73 have died.
One article suggests that this rapid spread was enabled by the mistrust of western medicine and healthcare providers among the Navajo Nation. After extensive history of genocide and intentional misinformation against the Navajo community, mistrust is greatly understandable. Despite these things happening years ago, their effects are still present and visible today; the Navajo Nation is greatly suffering during this pandemic due to the high poverty, poor healthcare access, limited clean drinking water (US uranium mines poisoned water supply) and neglect from the US government.
The outbreak in the Navajo Nation has been traced back to a March 9th rally at a local evangelical church. This seemed to spike the mistrust in the Navajo community, reminding the natives of the colonization of their people. Rumors began to spread that the virus was intentionally brought to their community by white Christians; obviously stemming from the mistreatment and genocide of Native Americans seen throughout history. As seen in states across the US, the Navajo Department of Health put a stay-at-home order on March 20th, however, some have disobeyed these orders because they are reminded of white government officials trying to force rules on their community.
Unfortunately, contact tracing has been very difficult for the Navajo Nation as well. The fast rate of infection makes it difficult to trace where every infected person has been. There have also been some complications due to the lifestyle of many of the Navajo people; many do not have phones and it can take hours to drive to a single house.
This is not the first time we have seen higher rates of infection among native and indigenous communities; in 2009, Native Americans and Alaska Natives were reported to die at rates four times higher than all other racial and ethnic groups from the H1N1 flu. Unfortunately, lack of clean running water makes hand washing difficult, and hospitals are hard to come by in the near 27,000 square mile reservation.
Government officials of the states encompassing the Navajo Nation have been working to increase funding and aid for the Navajo, and even celebrities have been working to raise awareness for Navajo Nation COVID-19 relief.