When Arvin Trujillo’s father died of COVID-19, the funeral lasted just 10 minutes. About 20 family members gathered at the burial site for a half-hour or so, but they didn’t hug or shake hands. There was no meal afterward where they could share memories or comfort one another. Several of Trujillo’s family members have died since the coronavirus outbreak began on the Navajo Nation reservation. One of the hardest parts, he said, is the lack of community and closure as they grieved.
“You didn’t have a chance to really say goodbye,” Trujillo said. “You’re just kind of left open. … Something isn’t done yet.”
Native American reservations have suffered from higher-than-average rates of cases of the coronavirus. Most face delays in using federal relief funds as underlying poverty and a lack of resources exacerbate the pandemic’s effects.
As of Tuesday, the Navajo Nation had reported more than 7,500 confirmed cases and 364 deaths. The tribe’s COVID-19 mortality rate of about 102 per 100,000 residents is higher than that of all but five U.S. states: New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Now the states that border the 27,000-square-mile reservation are starting to see a surge of cases. Most of the Navajo Nation’s territory is in Arizona, one of the leading U.S. hot spots, with a seven-day positive test rate average of more than 20 percent, compared to 8.4 percent nationwide. Authorities have barred non-residents from entering the reservation.
Other tribes have seen similar outbreaks. More than 12 percent of the 13,500 residents of the Fort Apache reservation in northeastern Arizona have tested positive for COVID-19. The tribal government banned the sale and use of alcohol for the rest of the year to keep people home. Arizona’s Havasupai reservation in the Grand Canyon has managed to keep the known case count at zero. But its roughly 600-person village of Supai is only accessible by foot, and officials have shut down the reservation for months. Reservations in Alaska, Montana, and South Dakota have limited movement, as well, especially people coming in from the outside.
The federal government set aside some $8 billion for Native American tribes as part of the economic relief package Congress passed in March, but it took much longer for that money to reach the reservations. While individual tribal members got stimulus checks along with other Americans, larger reservation relief had to go through two rounds of bureaucracy: first the U.S. government and then the tribal legislative process. A lawsuit over whether certain Native American–owned corporations could receive a chunk of the money held up distribution for weeks. The U.S. Treasury Department released 60 percent of the funds to the reservations in early May, with the rest coming on June 12. After that, the tribal governments had to agree on how to distribute the money. The Navajo Nation, for example, didn’t finalize a plan that allowed it to begin spending its $714 million until Thursday, and tribal President Jonathan Nez still must approve the process, the Navajo Times reported.
The stimulus package limits the use of the funds to particular needs related to the pandemic, but the exact distribution depends on the tribal governments. In the Navajo Nation, its legislature’s plan would spend $25 million to keep the government running and pay first responders. Another $20 million is going toward protective equipment for healthcare workers and disinfecting and maintenance work at government buildings, according to the Navajo Times.
Trujillo previously worked for the Navajo Nation’s tribal government and now serves as CEO of Four Corners Economic Development in Farmington, N.M. He said the pandemic has revealed the vulnerable nature of Native American communities, particularly when it comes to access to necessary services and infrastructure. Extended families often live together, making it difficult to isolate a sick relative. Many children on the Navajo reservation don’t have internet access, so virtual education is impossible. Families often have to drive long distances to get to basic things like water or groceries. The sick quickly overwhelmed medical services: In total, the reservation only had 200 hospital beds for its more than 173,000 residents, the BBC reported.
Trujillo said he hopes the tribal leaders, the federal government, and the broader community will take the opportunity to identify the weaknesses that left reservations vulnerable to the coronavirus so they can prioritize budgeting and improvement efforts in the future.
“With different tribes, there’s been different disasters that have happened, but nothing as prolonged or unpredicted as this,” he said, explaining that in the past, “we moved on, and nothing really changes. But this pandemic has really opened a lot of people’s eyes.”