Coronavirus crisis poses daunting challenge to Navajo Nation

By Lucia Leal

Washington, Jul 23 (efe-epa).- Shandiin delivers food every day to the local population, while Emma distributes vital supplies of bottled water and Michael buries those who have succumbed to the coronavirus.

Covid-19 poses a formidable health and economic challenge to inhabitants of the vast Navajo Nation, a Native American territory in the southwestern United States where that disease – which the tribe refers to as “the big cough” – shows no signs of abating.

The novel coronavirus slipped inside the country’s largest tribal area in March.

A man who had been to a basketball game in Phoenix, Arizona, attended a small religious service in Chilchinbito, a small town of just 500 inhabitants in the heart of Navajo Nation.

Two months later, that 71,000-sq.-kilometer (27,400-sq.-mile) territory had a higher coronavirus infection rate per capita than any US state.

Although efforts to flatten the curve were successful, the Navajo Nation’s inhabitants are now concerned about an increase in cases in parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah that surround the reservation.

“For the Navajo Nation, we’ve been hit hard, and we’ve put some stringent public health orders in place,” the president of that Native American territory, Jonathan Nez, told Efe.

In the extreme western portion of the territory, the only funeral home within a 100-km (62-mile) radius has been far busier than usual.

Its owner, Michael Begay, typically embalms around 270 bodies a year, but his year-to-date figure in July already exceeds 300; more than 60 percent have been victims of Covid-19, which already has killed more than 420 people throughout Navajo Nation.

“It just continues. I don’t see an end to this in the near future. And so I’m just kind of preparing for more cases to come in,” the funeral director of the Valley Ridge Mortuary in Tuba City, Arizona, told Efe.

Begay said he has had to hire more staff, buy a refrigerated truck to store additional bodies and increase the rate of funerals to four per day.

Three factors explain why the pandemic has exacted such a heavy toll on the reservation: the cohabitation of several generations under the same roof, a high rate of illnesses such as diabetes and asthma and the lack of access to running water and electricity in at least 30 percent of households.

That latter statistic is surprising to many Americans, who believe that “only happens in Africa or South America,” said Emma Robbins, a young Navajo woman who divides her time between California and the territory and who learned to speak fluent Spanish during a stay in Argentina.

“There are people who have been on waiting lists for (running water) for decades. For decades they’ve told these people, ‘it’ll be next year,'” she told Efe.

Robbins has worked on this structural problem for years through her involvement with the DigDeep organization, helping to install potable water systems that serve nearly 300 families. But the arrival of the pandemic has forced a shift to a more pressing matter – the distribution of bottled water to thousands of people on the reservation.

“If you want to protect yourself against Covid and you don’t have running water, you can’t wash your hands,” Robbins said.

But the water that enters people’s homes also needs to be safe to drink or use for cooking or basic hygiene, and that is not the case in much of Navajo Nation, Shandiin Herrera, a 23-year-old indigenous woman who lives in Monument Valley, an iconic desert region on the Arizona-Utah border, told Efe.

“A lot of the water wells across Navajo have been contaminated from past uranium mining … But (contamination from) other forms of mining (also) have filtered into our water systems. So when the water comes out of our faucets, it’s literally white,” she said.

While concerned about that problem and the hours-long lines to obtain water at official distribution points on the reservation, Herrera has devoted almost all of her time during the crisis to a citizens’ initiative – the Covid-19 Relief Fund – that distributes food to the most vulnerable members of the population.

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