Compassion Reporting on poverty fighting and criminal justice

Pandemic hits tribes especially hard

Compassion | The Navajo Nation and others suffer from lack of resources and care
by Rachel Lynn Aldrich
Posted 4/29/20, 05:04 pm

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.”

Associated Press/Photo by Rich Pedroncelli Associated Press/Photo by Rich Pedroncelli California Gov. Gavin Newsom

Rogue stimulus plan

Two Republican candidates running for the California State Assembly sued Gov. Gavin Newsom to stop his plan to distribute taxpayer dollars to illegal immigrants. On April 15, Newsom, a Democrat, announced that individuals in the state who are not eligible for payments from the federal government stimulus package could apply for $500 grants, up to $1,000 for families. California would allocate $75 million for this program, and nonprofit groups and private donors would contribute an additional $50 million, for a total of $125 million.

“We feel a deep sense of gratitude for people that are in fear of deportation but are still addressing the essential needs of tens of millions of Californians,” Newsom said.

The lawsuit filed by the two GOP candidates, Jessica Martinez and Ricardo Benitez, says the governor’s plan would improperly use taxpayer funds.

“At a time when law-abiding Californians are crushed by unemployment, housing issues, business closures, and massive limitations on our normal lives, Gov. Newsom is doing an end-run around the legal guardrails in place,” said the plaintiffs’ attorney, Harmeet K. Dhillon.

According to Newsom’s plan, immigrants may submit applications starting next month. —Charissa Koh

Associated Press/Photo by Christopher Dolan/The Times-Tribune Associated Press/Photo by Christopher Dolan/The Times-Tribune A grocery shopper in Dickson City, Pa.

Feeding U.S. kids

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is in the process of approving states to operate the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program for children who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. Congress authorized the program to offset the cost of food students would normally receive at school. So far, the USDA has approved 12 states.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the agency has made other aspects of its child nutrition program flexible, including letting parents pick up meals for their children and waiving requirements that tie after-school meals to educational activities. —C.K.

No symptoms

Mass testing is revealing far more prisoners have COVID-19 than are showing symptoms. Reuters reported that of the nearly 3,280 inmates who tested positive in prison systems in Arkansas, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia, 96 percent were asymptomatic. Other prisons are mass testing inmates and finding similar results. Physicians said the case count in prisons is likely much higher than reported because of limited testing. —C.K.

Read more Compassion Sign up for the Compassion email
Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Rachel is an assistant editor for WORLD Digital. She is a Patrick Henry College and World Journalism Institute graduate. Rachel resides with her husband in Wheaton, Ill.

Read more from this writer


You must be a WORLD Member and logged in to the website to comment.
    Posted: Thu, 04/30/2020 04:00 pm

    Prison Systems

    I hope they don't let prisoners out. It won't do anyone any good to have those people on the outside. 

    There aren't any jobs right now so where would they get money to live on?  Where would they house possible sick prisoners?

    Posted: Thu, 04/30/2020 04:04 pm

    Rogue Stimulus Plan

    Cal. Gov. feels a deep sense of gratitude for illegals to be here. 

    I'm sure Pelosi and the elite appreciate that illegals are still needed to work the vineyards at this time of need.

  • Nanamiro
    Posted: Mon, 05/04/2020 07:45 pm

    Our nation's reservations seem like third world countries in the midst of prosperity and opportunity. How did this happen? I don't know much about it but they sound like little socialist societies in the midst of a free society. Surely there is a reason they have so many serious problems...

  • OlderMom
    Posted: Tue, 05/19/2020 04:07 pm

    There is a reason; it seems the Bureau of Indian Affairs puts the bureau in bureaucracy! Apparently you can't exactly own land on a reservation, so anything you want to do has to go through many more layers of bureaucracy than outside, and if that doesn't sap the will to improve things, the easy money of government handouts demotivates people. Read The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians by Naomi Schaefer Riley.