The Navajo Nation Is Being Decimated by This Virus
The problems facing Native American communities during this pandemic were decades in the making
In the beginning, said Evelyna Cleveland-Gray, there was confusion on the reservation. “The whole community was scrambling,” said Cleveland-Gray, manager of the Chilchinbeto chapter of the Navajo Nation, located in the northeast corner of Arizona. “We didn’t know what we were supposed to do.”
It was here, doctors say, where two months ago a man who had been away at a basketball tournament came back and brought the virus with him. The Navajo Nation has been utterly decimated by Covid-19: As of Tuesday, there have been more than 3,100 confirmed cases and 100 deaths on the reservation of about 175,000 people. That infection rate — 18 cases per 1,000 people — means the Navajo Nation has a higher per capita rate of confirmed cases than any U.S. state. (New York has the highest rate among states, with 10 confirmed cases per 1,000 people.) On-the-ground reports paint a harrowing picture: checkpoints to enforce curfews, airlifts by the Arizona National Guard to deliver protective masks.
While members of the Chilchinbeto chapter have been following shelter-in-place orders, the community’s remote location makes that task nearly impossible. “Our nearest grocery store and refueling station is in Kayenta,” Cleveland-Gray said, referencing a town that’s about 25 miles away. “And then the nearest Walmart is two and a half hours away.” And given their remote location, online orders can take weeks to arrive.
“We want them to shelter in place, but there is a need to go into town to get items that are not readily available here,” Cleveland-Gray said.
Cleveland-Gray’s anxieties during the pandemic are tragically commonplace ones in Indigenous communities across the United States. For decades, Native leaders have spoken out about a lack of infrastructure and funding, and for decades they’ve been largely ignored by the federal government. All it took was a pandemic like Covid-19 to highlight — and, indeed, to exacerbate — the long-running inequities on reservations.
“The Native American, American Indian communities tend to be impoverished, not by any fault of their own,” said…