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The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Coronavirus has been devastating to the Navajo Nation, and help for a complex fight has been slow

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez picks up a case of bottled water for a resident at a supply pickup point on the reservation Thursday. The novel coronavirus has had an outsized effect on the Native American tribe. (Sharon Chischilly for The Washington Post)
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CRYSTAL, N.M. — A group of more than a dozen tribe members filled dozens of dust-covered cars with diapers, flour, rice and water, the bare staples that are sustaining the Navajo Nation as many fall ill and die.

If the novel coronavirus has been cruel to America, it has been particularly cruel here, on a desert Native American reservation that maybe has never felt more alone than during this pandemic. There's a lack of running water, medical infrastructure, Internet access, information and adequate housing. And as of Wednesday, as the Navajo tried desperately to take care of themselves, the promised help from the U.S. government had, as usual, not yet arrived.

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Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, 44, watching over the volunteer operation in a parking lot that day, said the tribe had not received "one cent" of the $8 billion that was allocated to Native American communities as part of the Cares Act passed in Washington on March 18. Nearly 2,700 people had fallen ill, and more than 80 had died, with the 350,000-resident reservation becoming one of the worst-of-the-worst American hot spots. Almost everyone knew someone who was sick, or someone who had died.

"We're not going to feel sorry for ourselves," Nez said. "We're going to help each other out."

Nez was nearly through listing the ravages of the coronavirus on his people when something rendered him silent mid-sentence: Two red-tailed hawks soared majestically above, their wings spread wide against an azure sky. He pointed: “Look!”

Men and women in masks, smocks and gloves paused, eyes to the heavens, and let out a “Wooo!” in unison.

A man’s voice broke the silence: “No Huggies!” Everyone snapped back to work.

“We must be doing something right to have this blessing from the creator,” Nez said quietly. “Our ancestors looking upon us to say they’re proud of what we’re doing, helping each other out, just as we did on the long walk.”

Later that day, the money came — $600 million delivered to the Navajo, 10 days after it was promised and more than a month after President Trump signed the relief package into law on March 30. Here, on the reservation where the Navajo tribe was relocated by government decree to their ancestral lands in 1868, the infection rate is among the highest in the world, with deaths reaching the level of some states with more than 15 times the population. Navajo leadership says the delay in funding has cost lives, the latest in hundreds of years of injustices delivered to their people, first by the colonial Europeans and now by the U.S. government.

The injustice has come by way of slaughter, war, abandonment and, notably, disease.

“If we’d gotten it a month ago, we would have made sure we had the rapid testing we’ve been hearing about,” said Myron Lizer, the Navajo vice president who is the main liaison with the federal government during the pandemic. “We’d have ventilators. We would’ve had extra staff come in a lot earlier. I have to believe that we could have saved more lives if we had the money earlier.”

As of Thursday, 3,632 Navajo were positive for covid-19, out of about 20,000 tests; there were 127 virus-related deaths.

Nez and a caravan of helpers began its trek to Navajo communities before daybreak Thursday, under the light of the moon. It moved from Window Rock, N.M., to Cameron, Ariz., 180 miles through sweeping red rock canyons, twisting mountain roads and past drought-choked riverbeds and numerous isolated one-room homes. Thursday’s mission was to serve the westernmost areas of the nation, with several stops in Arizona: Page, at the Coppermine and LeChee chapters of the reservation; K’ai’Bii’To’ and Tonalea, at the Ts’ah Bii Kin chapter; and in Shonto, Nez’s hometown.

Everywhere the caravan went, the lines were full of Native Americans touched by death and disease.

She dreamed of leading the Navajo Nation ‘with respect and dignity.’ Then she caught covid-19.

Toledo Roy, 59, said his cousin lost two of her adult children, and her husband requires oxygen in quarantine. It’s impossible to carry on a telephone conversation with her. “We can’t call,” Roy said. “She’s just crying, crying, crying. I don’t call anymore.”

Eileen Begay, 58, of Page, said two of her cousin’s children — sisters in their mid-30s who were former Navajo public safety officers — have died of the virus. She and her husband, Tully, still have trouble convincing Eileen’s 82-year-old mother to stay home.

“We have to sit down and talk to her and tell her you do really have to take precautions,” Tully Begay said. “The elders can be hardheaded, and when they make their minds up to go into the store and they want to go, they don’t think about how serious the situation is.”

Franklin Fowler, president of the K’ai’Bii’To’ chapter, said there is a staffer in a local school district who has lost 10 members of his family and quit his job in the aftermath, due to stress.

“It’s hit us very hard,” said Fowler, 60. “To have the president visit is an inspiration. We have people that are very, very down right now.”

'The resources weren't there'

In K’ai’Bii’To’ on Thursday, the group served its biggest line of the day; More than 200 cars sitting bumper to bumper. Residents are instructed to keep their windows up and to open their trunks for contactless delivery. Elders, among the most-revered Navajo citizens, have the letter ‘e’ written in washable marker on their front windows while waiting in line. They get more supplies.

Helena Begay, 56, runs the senior programs at the K’ai’Bii’To’ chapter house, which began to warn elders in the community about the arrival of the virus in January. They invited a representative from Tuba City Regional Health Care to explain the potential impact.

Health officials believe the largest Navajo outbreak originated at a March 7 religious gathering on the reservation hosted by a church, where Helena Begay worshiped as a child.

“Why did the church do that when they were told no large gatherings before that?” Helena Begay said. “It spread like wildfire after that.”

A church representative did not respond to requests for comment.

The Navajo fight against the virus is more complex than in most parts of the country because of a lack of awareness, owing in part to scant Internet access in rural areas. Residents said large chunks of the Navajo Nation don’t take the virus seriously or willfully ignore warnings. Those delivering food and water to the backcountry say they hear one predominant question from those they’re helping: Is this real?

“That’s their big question,” said Travis Fuller, a Navajo Nation Ranger, responsible for patrolling the nation’s sparsely populated remote lands. “How serious is this? Some have some connection with the outside world through their phones, but many don’t. So many people are not aware because of the isolation.”

Those are the people Nez is trying to reach. And if he can’t get to them, he hopes to convince their children and relatives. At each stop on the aid tour his top communications staffer, Jared Touchin, records smartphone videos for social media of Nez emphasizing, through a mask, the importance of wearing face coverings, washing hands and minimizing nonessential travel. Then the 16-wheelers pack up and move on to the next stop, onion skins blowing across gravel and dirt parking lots in their wake.

Some day soon, Nez and his administration will get off the road and focus their attention on water access, and after that, reliable electricity and broadband Internet access.

“If the federal government is wanting to help with another pandemic in the future, we need these things,” Nez said. “This is happening right in the middle of the most powerful nation in the world? We’re helping other nations with billions in aid, and the Navajo are still waiting on aid. We should be working on improving quality of life for the first citizens of this country, who are being ignored.”

Nez and Lizer have a plan for the federal aid they have received, and it might not adhere to the strict guidelines it came with: They want to improve water infrastructure above all else.

Thirty-six percent of residents of the reservation do not have access to running water, which means more than a third of the Navajo Nation spent the past two months of America’s exposure to the coronavirus rationing a limited supply of water, prioritizing drinking water and water for livestock over hand-washing. That also means more than a third of residents travel to reservation’s most-populous cities and nearby border towns to purchase water in bulk, potentially exposing others to the virus.

Hospitals on the reservation have been overwhelmed, so some who have covid-19 but are not in critical danger have been moved to overflow quarantine facilities in high school gyms, and many are sent to Flagstaff, Ariz., or nearby Gallup, N.M., for treatment.

Gallup, expecting travel from the reservation into town would worsen an already dire situation in its hospitals, limited road access just to residents last week.

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“We don’t have water rights established for us like the rest of the country,” Nez said. “We’re fighting for our share of water. The water is being pumped into Phoenix, pumped into farming along the Colorado River, but we don’t have the water for our agriculture.”

So he wants the federal money, which is earmarked for supplies related to fighting the spread of the virus, for water.

“That $600 million comes with a lot of restrictions — you have to use it for covid supplies — but we’re way at the tail end, and we should be thinking about mitigation and preparedness for the next pandemic,” Nez said. “Let’s use it for water infrastructure. We’re going to test them. We’ll see. We don’t want to get hit hard like this again.”

Helena Begay, who doesn’t have running water at her home but has helped organize regular deliveries of supplies to more than 90 elders in the community during the outbreak, believes Native Americans have been left behind.

“I don’t think our lives are valued by the rest of the country,” she said. “When we went on the long walk, the treaty was signed that the government would give us housing, education, health care. . . . We were told we would be taken care of. We still don’t have PPE here. It’s all donations. It should have been here from Day 1. Washington D.C. should have known this was coming here. A lot of people in my community died because they weren’t helped right away. The resources weren’t there.”

Her feeling of being spurned is not uncommon here on the reservation, and external stereotypes and historic prejudices have played a role again during the pandemic, especially in border communities on the edge of the Navajo land.

Some surrounding community leaders have alleged the outbreak has spread because of the Navajo coming into their towns, and others blame the Navajo outbreak on Native American culture. In Page, for example, many have been debating Mayor Levi Tappan’s comments on Facebook, which included an attack on Nez: “I wish he would battle alcoholism as hard as COVID-19.” Tappan declined an interview request.

“It is not the time to be calling each other out,” Nez said. “It is the time to unify, to unite, to push this virus out of our households, communities, cities and out of our nation.”

Wilson Stewart, Jr., a Navajo council delegate, said negative rhetoric against the Navajo is nothing new, and he bristled at the idea that the Native American tribe brought disease to U.S. cities.

“It’s sad to see, sad to hear about it,” said Stewart, 48, as he loaded supplies into waiting cars in Crystal. “We didn’t ask you to come over. And you brought us smallpox. We’ve had to endure.”

This article has been updated.