The Navajo Nation is currently experiencing the most coronavirus cases per capita than any other state in the U.S., including New York. As of now, there are 5,348 cases and 246 deaths. Protective measures have been put in place such as masks being required in public and total lockdown curfews during the weekend to control the spread of the virus.
The nation is already at high risk as they experience high rates of heart disease and hypertension. Doctors Without Borders dispatched a team into the Navajo Nation comprising of nine people: two physicians, three nurse/midwives, a water sanitation specialist, two logisticians, and a health promoter who focuses on community health education. Typically, Doctors Without Borders avoids intervening in the U.S. but the Navajo Nation has proved itself to be in dire need of assistance.
The extent of the outbreak has worsened for several reasons. To start, in a nation of roughly 170,000 residents, about 30% of them lack access to running water. This complicates things for many people at a time in which handwashing is crucial and water is an essential resource for health. Further, a decline in funding has made it difficult for all members of the Navajo Nation to be provided with water equally. In 2016, the Indian Health Service estimated that they would need $2.7 billion for water and sanitation infrastructure to all homes on reservations that receive water through traditional lines, Congress only provided less than 4% of that needed amount. Additionally, the U.S. has struggled with providing water to residents equally. A study by DigDeep and U.S. Water Alliance titled “Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States” drew exposure to race being the strongest indicator of access to running water for Americans in 2020. African American and Latinx citizens are about twice as likely to lack complete plumbing in their households compared to White households. Native Americans are nearly 19 times more likely in the same comparison.
The long-standing discrimination that Native Americans have received in this country also plays a role in worsening the effects of the virus. The Navajo Nations spans across Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, taking up 27,413 square miles. They have a long history of displacement and dispossession starting in 1864 with the “Long Walk” in which the Navajo were forced to leave their traditional homelands in present-day Arizona and Western New Mexico. They were obligated to walk about 300 miles to Fort Sumner in New Mexico where they were kept in internment camps. Many died during the walk. The once 25,000 Navajo population decreased to between 5,000 and 8,000 according to different estimates.
The U.S. and the Navajo signed treaties that establishing that they were still to be dependent on the U.S. and that the government would provide funding for healthcare, infrastructure, and other necessary rights. The U.S. government has failed to do this, contributing to the challenges faced by the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Nation also faces a crippled healthcare system provided by the American government. The Indian Health Service, meant to provide healthcare to Native American communities remains underfunded—the number of doctors, nurses, and dentists is insufficient.
Mark Charles, a member of the Navajo Nation running as an independent for US president in 2020 calls on the government to honor treaties that were signed and reform on the U.S. and all Native American relations.