Low on food and water, Navajo Nation faces joining the top three hot spots in the US for COVID.

“We tell people to wash their hands, but a study showed that 30 percent of homes on Navajo Nation don’t have running water, so how are we going to do that? Let me be crystal clear, we don’t think people of color are biologically or genetically predisposed to get COVID-19. There is nothing inherently wrong with you. But they are socially predisposed o coronavirus exposure and have a higher incidence of the very diseases that put you at risk for severe complications of coronavirus.”  Surgeon General Jerome Adams

The land area of the Navajo Nation spans three US states, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. The semi-autonomous region is approximately the size of the state of West Virginia and has a population of 350,000 people. There is significant poverty, and many residents are plagued with diabetes, asthma, and suffer from depression, all of which make the Navajo more susceptible to the ravages of coronavirus. The Navajo also has multi-generational families sharing one home an opportunity for contagion to rapidly spread.

As of April 10, 2020, the tribe has 558 cases and 22 deaths “compared with 13 deaths in the entire state of Utah, which has a population 17 times larger”.

Navajo Nation is expected to become one of the top three hot spots in the country per-capita for COVID-19 cases behind New York and New Jersey.

Food Apartheid

Though some have referred to the situation of food distribution in the Navajo Nation a “food desert”, Livingston used the phrase “food apartheid”.

Now, with the curfew, “hunger is becoming an issue”, Livingston said.

The lack of easy access to food – especially healthy options – has been a problem for Navajo people for years.

A 2006-07 study by Johns Hopkins University found that more than 76 percent of households faced food insecurity on the Navajo Nation.

While difficulties around food access are rising during the coronavirus crisis, “at the same time resilience has been escalating”, Livingston said.

Without the ability to travel long distances, people on Navajo Nation can and should employ ancestral ways of life with greater frequency, according to the DCAA organiser.

These practices include cultivation of food at the home, making physical checks on elders in the community as opposed to using mobile phones and other forms of community support, including food deliveries to at-risk homes.

That community support does venture into the digital realm. There have been numerous fundraisers, including a GoFundMe for Navajo and Hopi families that has raised nearly $400,000 since March 15.

Lack of water

PHOENIX — Along with having positive coronavirus cases approach 600 as of the daily report on Friday, the Navajo Nation is facing other problems related to the outbreak of the virus.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez joined KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Gaydos and Chad on Friday and described issues with telecommunication and the scarcity of water.

“There is a large population on our nation that don’t have running water, so they have to go and haul water for their household,” Nez said.

“Especially if you have a shelter in place order … it’s kind of hard for them to go and travel to get some water for them to practice good hygiene at home by washing their hands with soap and water,” he added.

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The Arizona National Guard received a call on Friday from the Navajo Nation asking for water, according to ABC15.

Maj. Gen. Michael McGuire, Arizona’s Director of Emergency and Military Affairs, told the television station potable water would be on its way to the Navajo Nation as well as non-potable water for livestock.

Along with the delivery of water, the Arizona National Guard recently put a temporary medical facility tent in Chinle, Arizona, to help with the outbreak of cases.

Drought

The horses came from miles around. Seeking life, they found death.

Last spring, the arid western edge of the Navajo Nation in Arizona was drier than it had been in many years. Feral and wild horses, dehydrated and malnourished, sought out a watering hole near Gray Mountain. Instead of finding relief, nearly 200 got stuck in muddy clay and perished.

It’s a scene that comes to mind for Carlee McClellan when he thinks about drought.

On the Navajo Nation, access to drinking water is limited, more than 40 percent of homes lack running water, and many people haul water over 50 miles by truck to replenish their storage cisterns. But if we want to understand what water, rain and drought mean there, we need to think beyond household use.

Drought has a huge impact on agriculture, threatening the survival of plants and animals alike. McClellan grew up on the reservation with his grandmother, practicing traditional dry farming, which relies on rainfall instead of irrigation and involves a variety of techniques for conserving scarce moisture. So he knows how reliant his people are on crops and livestock like horses, cows and sheep.

“Crops and livestock are an integral part of Navajo life,” said McClellan. “Water is important on many different levels beyond what you have coming into your home.”

Electricity and Environmental Racism

“Peabody Mine took all our water,” Deal says. “Peabody closed then this virus comes along. It’s one thing after another.”

And mining did more than just drain the tribe’s aquifer. Decades of uranium extraction have left generations of Navajos with major health problems. Adrian Lerma says these mines created conditions like autoimmune disorders that have left this community vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“There are people that do have compromised immune systems because of this contamination that’s really affected the land, the water, the air, the people,” Lerma says.

Lerma has been delivering food, water, wood, and medicinal herbs to the elders in her community who are on lockdown. But she says the food won’t last long. About one in 10 Navajos don’t have electricity.

“And so that means there’s people that don’t have refrigeration systems in their homes,” Lerma says. “They can’t store food. They don’t have freezers. And so that puts them at a great disadvantage when it comes to stocking up on supplies they need.”

There has been a surge of support for efforts like a GoFundMe Campaign to provide food and water for tribal elders, and for DIG DEEP to install more water systems.

The Navajo Nation also lacks enough health care workers, hospital beds and other equipment needed to address the crisis. Under normal circumstances, there are about 400 hospital beds for 170,000 people. So many patients have been flown to hospitals in border towns. Council delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty says the Indian Health Service was lacking resources before the virus.

“We know it’s not adequate to just meet our basic needs. And so now as this pandemic moves forward across the world but on Navajo Nation we’re also seeing those gaps in the immediate response,” Crotty says.