For those who live on the border of the Navajo Nation Reservation in New Mexico, the most apparent evidence of the coronavirus pandemic is what is missing. On an average weekend, Annette Reich of Navajo Ministries, which runs a children’s home in Farmington, N.M., sees Native American residents drive past her offices to buy groceries and other supplies. The Walmart just down the road usually bustles, and the streets are crowded. But now, the local Native American population has virtually vanished.
“It’s pretty deserted in town on the weekends,” she said. “It’s a little eerie, actually.”
Native American reservations have proved particularly susceptible to the spread of COVID-19. The disease has uncovered the vulnerabilities of a community that already struggled with limited access to basic amenities and healthcare services compared to the rest of the U.S. population.
The outbreak has struck the Navajo Nation, which has the largest U.S. reservation, the hardest of any tribe. The reservation spans more than 27,000 square miles across parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah and is home to 350,000 people—about the population of Wichita, Kan.
As of Tuesday, the Navajo Nation had recorded 1,873 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 60 deaths. If the tribal area were a state, it would rank near the top of the list in the number of cases and deaths per capita. Its infection rate far outranks the states that surround it.
The first cases surfaced on the reservation in mid-March and quickly spread, passing 200 infections just two weeks later. Local hospitals have had to fly patients to Albuquerque, N.M.; Flagstaff, Ariz.; and Phonix, Dr. Loretta Christensen, the chief medical officer for the Navajo Area Indian Health Services, told NPR.
In response, the reservation has implemented some of the most stringent restrictions in the United States. Residents are under a daily nighttime curfew. On Tuesday, the health department announced it is extending its 57-hour weekend curfew to this weekend. Residents may not leave their homes at all from about dusk on Friday through early Monday morning, with exceptions for essential workers. Over the weekends, even drive-thru restaurants close, gas stations and grocery stores limit their hours, and people who sell goods on the roadside have to pack up and go home. The public health agency issued an order two weeks ago requiring everyone on the reservation to wear protective masks in public. Tribal police set up checkpoints in Navajo communities to enforce the order in the department’s largest-ever coordinated effort, according to Police Chief Phillip Francisco. A violation can carry a fine of up to $1,000 and 30 days in jail. Reich said her contacts on the reservation said life had come to a complete standstill. “There is a feeling of desperation and isolation,” she said.
Poverty and poor living conditions enable the quick spread and high mortality rate of the coronavirus among Native Americans. Of the 55,000 homes located on the Navajo reservation, about 15,000 don’t have electricity, and many also lack easy access to running water, according to the American Public Power Association. Some people have to drive up to an hour and a half to reach locations with clean water.
Finding health information and educating children at home also is more difficult. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that in 2019, 60 percent of those living in Navajo County, Ariz., had internet connections in their homes, compared to more than 80 percent in the rest of the state. About 30 percent of residents in the county are estimated to live below the poverty line, and Reich said many family members often live in one small home. All of those conditions make it difficult to follow official hygiene and social distancing guidelines. Native Americans also have higher rates of underlying health conditions than the rest of the population.
The U.S. government has begun some efforts to help the reservation slow the spread. The Navajo Nation announced on Friday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had arrived to build field hospitals in Chinle, Ariz.; Gallup, N.M.; and Shiprock, N.M. And the Arizona National Guard delivered food and supplies to the reservation in early April. But those solutions may prove adequate for only the short term: The reservations have suffered economically from the widespread shutdown of casinos, tourism, agriculture, and other businesses that are the lifeblood of their limited economies.
After a delay due to court battles over distribution, the federal government said it would begin doling out the allotted funds from the $2.2 trillion economic rescue package to reservations this week. The U.S. Treasury Department hasn’t said how it will divvy up the $8 billion set aside for the tribes.
There is some hope that COVID-19 will die down in most of the Navajo Nation during the extremely hot summer months. But Reich said some experts expect a second wave of the coronavirus during flu season in October and November, and the Navajo Nation likely will not have recovered by then. But she also said strangers had contacted Navajo Ministries to ask how they could help those who are struggling.
“So it looks dire,” Reich said. “But God isn’t looking the other way. He’s very aware of the situation, and He’s working through it.”