Left in the lurch by a long delay in accessing federal aid, members of the Navajo Nation, which has a higher Covid-19 infection rate than the rest of the country, have been organising a relief effort to help the most vulnerable members of their community. One volunteer told our team about what is happening on the ground.

The Navajo Nation is a territory occupying parts of Utah, Nevada and Arizona, and is home to 156,000 people. The territory has been particularly hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. As of May 10, a total of 3,122 Navajo had tested positive for the virus out of 17,000 people tested. Around 100 Navajos have died of the virus so far.

It took over a month for Navajo authorities to receive the $600 million in aid promised by the federal government.  

“I have to believe that we could have saved more lives if we had the money earlier,” Navajo vice president Myron Lizer told the Washington Post.

As a result, volunteers led the virus relief effort, which was organised through the Facebook group “Navajo & Hopi Families Covid-19 Relief” and funded through a GoFundMe page. The page, which was set up by Ethel Branch, the former general prosecutor of the Navajo Nation, managed to raise more than $3.5 million in donations.

“Lockdown has been really hard for the Navajo”

Vanessa Tullie, who runs an aid association in Phoenix, Arizona, is in charge of buying food for the relief effort. She decided to get involved after witnessing how difficult the start of lockdown was for her grandfather, who lives in the middle of the reserve.
I went with him to pick up groceries at the nearest store and lots of the aisles were empty. There was no toilet paper or bottles of water. Only the most expensive meat was left. That’s one of the reasons that lockdown is so hard for Navajos. It’s difficult for them to stock up on food. Because there are very few grocery stores [Editor’s note: There are only 13 grocery stores in the 70,000 km² Navajo reserve], they end up having to make numerous trips, which increases the risk of getting infected.

The main thing that we do is to deliver provisions to the most vulnerable members of the Navajo Nation – people who are elderly or who live alone or who aren’t mobile. We needed to come up with a solution quickly in order to enable these people to stay at home as much as possible. There was an urgent need because the Federal and Navajo authorities weren’t capable of responding quickly to the crisis.

“Some people think of the virus as some kind of monster or a huge cloud of sickness”

Aside from the issues with access to food, there are other reasons that explain why the Navajo community has been so affected. Some, like my grandfather, don’t really have a clear understanding of the virus. This is especially a problem when it is explained in the Navajo language. Some people think of it as some kind of monster or a huge cloud of sickness.

A lot of households in the Navajo Nation include several generations living together under one roof, which increases the risk of transmission. But one of the main issues is a lack of running water. In the middle of a pandemic, lots of Navajo can’t wash their hands.

More than a third of Navajo households don’t have access to running water, because of a general lack of infrastructure as well as the fact that several water sources have been contaminated by old uranium mines. Some people wash their hands less to save precious drinking water. To respond to this public health issue, some initiatives have focused on setting up emergency handwashing stations.

On May 13, it was reported that a total of 83,664 people have died of Covid-19 and more than 1.4 million people have been infected in the United States, the country hardest hit by the pandemic. Utah, Nevada and Arizona, the three states that are home to the largest concentration of Navajos, have reported nearly 25,000 cases and 956 deaths.