In the latest of his reports from around the world on the coronavirus pandemic, Taylor Edgar looks at the crisis on a reservation in the US state of Arizona. 

The Navajo Nation reservation in Arizona spans an area more than twice the size of the Highlands and Islands and is home to roughly 300,000 tribal members with some residing off the reservation.  This mainly rural desert area in the southwest of the United States, east of the Grand Canyon, sprawls over land in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. It is some 2,000 miles from the New York City coronavirus epicentre.

Yet, even here, COVID-19 has arrived. And the Navajo Nation, mostly unprepared to handle a pandemic, is bracing itself for what comes next.

Keanu Jones, a member of the Navajo Nation and a senior at Navajo Technical University, says he is anxious about what is about to be unleashed.

“The Navajo Nation is really struggling with the pandemic. Our land base is the rough size of the state of West Virginia, but we only have 13 grocery stores across the entire nation,” states Keanu.

“We don’t have enough hospital beds and hospitals to accommodate everyone. I know the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 were shipped off the reservation to a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, to house the patient. This is extremely alarming knowing that the state of Arizona and other state’s hospital beds will reach full capacity, and we might not have anywhere to place our patients.”

The lack of infrastructure is underlining the need to observe COVID-19 restrictions in order not to exhaust the reservation’s medical resources.

As of April 11, there had been 698 confirmed cases on the Navajo Nation reservation, 24 deaths and 2,760 negative test results. This is a development that has shaken locals, lulled into a false sense of security due mainly to their geography.

“Being at home on the reservation you feel isolated from the world, but when cases start to hit the reservation, it doesn’t feel that way anymore. We started to understand and realise the severity of this pandemic. Being at home on the Navajo Nation at times feels like an escape from the world at large. However, when the first Navajo community contracted the virus, it made an impact closer to home. Once a distant idea, the pandemic now is striking ever closer to home.”

57-hour Curfew

When the pandemic reached their door, the Navajo Nation governing body immediately signed an executive order implementing stay at home restrictions and social distancing. The local tribal government instituted a 57-hour curfew from 8 pm on April 10 until 5 am on April 13 in a bid to slow the spread of the virus. The draconian measure has now been relaxed, but the overnight curfew remains in place as does hand-washing and social distancing and bans on large gatherings.

To relieve some of the pressure on the Navajo Nation’s healthcare system, the National Guard has been assisting and setting up makeshift hospitals in local gymnasiums.

Meanwhile, the local authorities are conducting education and outreach programs to ensure the public are doing all they can to prevent further infections. Social media is being utilised, as well as the Navajo Nation’s radio station, and the newspaper to provide regular updates. But with many parts of the reservation without electricity, running water or internet access, it is challenging.

Thanks to the Navajo Nation’s unshakeable family and community connections, there is a sense of pulling together and looking out for each other. Listing some examples of this community spirit, Keanu says: “Some communities can provide food boxes, firewood and other items for families that require supplies. Schools are distributing take-home boxes of food for the students and their families on their campuses. Communities and schools continue to find ways to support the community and one another.”

Donations are also being received by a variety of tribal organisations to help the Navajo Nation overcome any difficulties they face in combatting the pandemic.

For Keanu, who is studying Creative Writing and New Media, COVID-19 has meant transitioning to online learning which, for many students, is not practical at home.

“Thankfully, I’m able to access the internet through my phone and use a hotspot, but there are other students that don’t have the same privilege; some might not even own a computer. I live in the rural areas of the reservation, so we don’t have running water, we have solar for electricity.”

Looking After The Elders

Of more significant immediate concern for Keanu is his 85-year-old grandmother, who because of her age and diabetes is in a high-risk category. Keanu ensures she has an adequate supply of firewood but is careful to keep his distance when checking on her every other day. Given her underlying health issues, taking his grandmother to the hospital for treatment of any kind represents a severe threat to her well-being. And other families are sure to be facing similar dilemmas with vulnerable family members.

“I’ve learned that by living in the rural areas, you can’t rely on anyone else like the federal, state, tribal government to help with everything. We continue to provide for ourselves and make trips into the nearest city to buy our groceries,” remarks a resolute Keanu.

“Life since COVID-19 hit the Navajo Nation has been surreal. It feels like a dream at times, but it’s important to know that we’ll get through this by continuing to take care of ourselves and other family members. Life is difficult on the Navajo Nation, but this was how we grew up even without the pandemic. This way of life has helped us to do our best at being self-reliant, especially in a time like now.”

In common with many indigenous tribes, the Navajo Nation is grappling with COVID-19 against a backdrop of serious social issues including high suicide rates, unemployment, poverty, loss of language and culture, and a host of associated health issues.

In these uncertain days, though, some of the tribe are looking to their cultural wisdom to provide a helping hand.

“The Center for Disease Control’s restriction on large gatherings has impacted social and cultural activity engagements. There are cultural stories and practices in place that help to combat situations like this; however, it’s important to keep that knowledge amongst our communities and families,” Keanu reveals.

He continues: “The history of my ancestors and that of many other indigenous tribes have been through so much. This is another obstacle we are facing, and with the strength of our cultural practices and knowledge, we will prevail. It’s important to remember that Native Americans are not completely extinct, we are still here, and we will always be here. The life we have on the Navajo Nation may seem very difficult, but it’s normal for us; it’s our way of life.”

  • You can find out more about life on the Navajo Nation reservation on the Keanu Jones  YouTube channel.