An invisible red flag flies over the Navajo Nation, one of the Native American tribes hit the hardest by COVID-19. A red flag is called a "flag of defiance” and throughout history has been raised in cities and castles under siege to indicate that they would not surrender. The Navajo Nation’s fight against COVID-19 embodies all that red flag represents. They will not surrender to the monstrous pandemic enemy. The Navajo Nation’s success in flattening the curve has been primarily due to an aggressive testing regimen, widespread adherence to mask-wearing and social distancing, as well as one of the strictest stay-at-home curfews in the country.
The pandemic has threatened to wipe out entire Native American tribes across the U.S. They have been hit hard by COVID-19 due to an inadequate health care system and a chronic lack of support from the federal government to these communities’ social and economic well-being. In April the Navajo Nation was in the top three largest COVID-19 hot spots in the U.S., trailing only behind New York and New Jersey. The Navajo Reservation has experienced more deaths per capita than any state in the U.S. Virtually everyone on the reservation knows someone who has been personally affected by the virus.
Timian M. Godfrey, an advanced-practice registered nurse who alternates between hospital emergency departments and tribal lands, said the challenge she sees treating patients in Native communities is consistently poor access to health services. Godfrey said health discrepancies are often solely addressed pharmacologically instead of holistically.
When the Coronavirus CARES Act Relief Fund provided $8 billion for 574 federally recognized tribes, it was an historic federal acknowledgement of tribal, state, local and territorial governments. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 excluded tribes from its major state fiscal relief. Even with the CARES Relief Fund provisions they have been allotted this time, tribal governments will need additional monetary relief from Congress that is ongoing and long overdue.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights reported that prior to COVID-19 the Indian Health Service (IHS) budget was meeting just half of tribal health needs. Those IHS funds are now stretched to the point breaking even with the support from the CARES Act. Tribes, states and local governments are facing huge costs in their attempt to contain, treat and respond to the pandemic. COVID-19 has illustrated with shocking clarity that inadequate funding for the Indian Health Service has deadly consequences.
According to the Office of Minority Health (OMH) while older people generally are among those more susceptible to the virus’ health effects, that’s especially true for American Indian and Alaska Natives who have much higher rates of underlying medical conditions—such as lung disease and asthma, diabetes, heart disease, kidney and liver disease and immune-compromising diseases—putting them at higher risk for COVID-19’s more dangerous effects.
Decades of underfunding of tribal governments and Native American communities by the federal government has created a housing shortage on reservations that makes the social distancing needed to combat the virus extremely hard for families to comply with. Compared to overcrowding of just 2 percent for all U.S. households, 16 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native homes are overcrowded.
Many Native American cultures view their elders with reverence and place an emphasis on community and multigenerational living; 10 percent of those aged 50 and older are living in multigenerational households, versus 6.5 percent in the U.S. general population.
While the financial assistance from the CARES Act is an important first step to help tribes, states and local governments confront this pandemic, it will not be enough given rapidly rising unemployment, health costs and revenue loss that tribes are facing. The CARES Act has a deadline imposed, which requires funds must be spent by the end of August 2020 or they must be returned. On July 5 Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer approved portions of two separate resolutions that address the use of federal CARES Act funding for the Navajo Nation.
So far, Nez and Lizer have approved CARES Act funds for special duty pay and PPE for frontline workers and disinfecting government facilities. “Our focus has always been to put forth a comprehensive plan that helps those who need it the most and that includes our frontline warriors, and also to plan and prepare for any potential new waves of COVID-19 and other pandemics,” President Nez said.
U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Ariz., has introduced a bill to extend the spending deadline for tribal governments to Dec. 30, 2022. The Navajo Nation has many hurdles to jump before any development can occur. They have to get the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of Interior and the White House approval. Federal and tribal regulations make things like digging new water lines and building water towers on the reservation incredibly difficult. In early June the tribal government sent a white paper to the White House that proposes waiving certain federal regulations to fast-track projects. So far Nez said they have not heard a response.
The Nez-Lizer administration also approved the following funds, requested through Legislation No. 0116-20 and developed by the Nez-Lizer administration through Resolution CJN-47-20: $10 million for food, water and basic necessities care packages and related items; $2 million for computer hardware and software for government offices to improve tele-work capabilities for employees to carry services for the Navajo people; $3.5 million for bathroom additions and upgrades for Navajo residents; $3 million for P.L. 93-638 health care facilities; $2.5 million for expenses to facilitate the procurement and/or improvement of the Navajo Nation’s financial system to process Navajo Nation CARES Fund expenditures.
Dig Deep, the Indian Health Service that has been working to expand water access, currently has a waitlist of 3,200 homes across Navajo Nation that have no access to water according to the IHS. An estimated 30 percent of homes on the Navajo Reservation don’t have running water. Many of these homes are remote and have to haul water for miles. A sizable portion of the 174,000 residents on the reservation, the US Water Alliance report said, have less than 10 gallons of water in their homes at any given time, sometimes using as little as 2 or 3 gallons a day. The average American uses 88 gallons a day. In addition, over half of Navajo communities lack broadband access. There is also a lack of good healthy food, with only 13 grocery stores operating within a reservation that is about the size of West Virginia.
More than $300 million on infrastructure projects has not been spent yet, though there are several projects the Nez-Lizer administration said they are ready to put the money toward immediately. The administration has proposed to expend the remaining CARES Act funding for expenditures of $300 million for water infrastructure and agriculture projects, $150 million for powerline and solar infrastructure, $50 million for broadband/
A happy, feel-good moment out of the tragedy of the pandemic for the Navajo people is due to the work and dreams of Zoel Zohnnie. His efforts to help his people on the reservation access clean potable water has grown from a one man, one water tank to four 16-foot flatbed trucks that carry 550-gallon tanks, hoses, equipment and a water pump. His team has delivered more than 400 barrels and more than 100,000 gallons of water to more than 20 communities.
The volunteer operation delivers an average of 5,000 gallons a week to residents across the reservation. Zohnnie said he hopes to continue his initiative helping his people in whatever way he can beyond COVID-19. He wants the world to see that not all that has come from the pandemic is sorrow and tragedy.
On August 13 the Nez-Lizer administration issued guidelines and a plan to carefully reopen the Navajo Nation with a phased-in approach. The “Navajo Nation Reopening Plan” includes safety guidelines for Navajo Nation residents to follow through the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, directs places of business to implement COVID-19 policies and procedures meeting certain standards, and provides a color-coded system for progressively reopening business on the Navajo Nation based on data-driven analysis and input from health experts.
“The first case of COVID-19 in the Navajo Nation was confirmed on March 17, and that is the day we faced an invisible monster like we never dealt with before. Since that day, we have combated the virus together, and it has made us stronger and more resilient,” President Nez said.
“We have had 48 consecutive days with less than 100 reported daily cases of COVID-19, and 13 consecutive days under 50 daily cases,” said Nez. Nonetheless, the president made it clear that Navajo leaders cannot rush to reopen their nation and must reopen slowly and cautiously—and most importantly, they must rely on the data and advice of our health care experts. “Together,” he concluded, “we helped each other, through our way-of-life teachings, to flatten the curve.”