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Live Mic: Navajo Nation takes on coronavirus onslaught

Angelina Dinehdeal wipes tears from her eyes as she sits with her 8-year-old daughter, Annabelle, on the family's compound in Tuba City, Ariz., on April 20, 2020. The family has been devastated by COVID-19. The Navajo reservation has some of the highest rates of coronavirus in the country. If Navajos are susceptible to the virus' spread in part because they are so closely knit, that's also how many believe they will beat it. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

SALT LAKE CITY — As coronavirus alters our world, Indian Country has been hit especially hard — and nowhere more so than Navajo Nation. 

The pandemic has forced tribal communities to confront challenges such as housing shortages, overcrowding, lack of medical providers in rural areas and food and water insecurity.

The Navajo Nation, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah and reported a population of 173,667 on the 2010 Census, now has the highest per-capita cases of the coronavirus in the United States.

Navajo country has been impacted with 4,253 positive cases and 146 confirmed deaths as of May 20, which, in contrast, is higher than the rates in New York and New Jersey, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. and a report from CNN.

Lending a hand in Utah

 Utah Tribal COVID-19 Relief is a joint group task force that has come together to immediately assist Native American Tribes in Utah.

Heather Tanana, a research law professor at the University of Utah, joined Lee Lonsberry on Live Mic to explain the efforts behind Utah Tribal COVID-19 Relief.

“Tell me about the problem you have observed and how you are going about resolving it,” Lee asked.

“As part of our Indian Law Section with the Utah State Bar, we actually have an Indian Child Welfare Act subcommittee that gets together monthly,”  Tanana said.

“Some of us are practicing attorneys. Some of us are social workers. We’re all dealing with Indian Child welfare issues. As the pandemic started progressing . . . we were hearing a lot of feedback and concern growing about the infection rate rising in our tribal communities.” she said.

“Some of us were very personally affected. Family members had contracted coronavirus. We really wanted to do something. So that’s what prompted creation of Utah Tribal COVID-19 Relief,” Tanana said.

“I don’t think a lot of people are aware that there are eight tribes within the state,” Tanana said.

The eight federally recognized tribal nations in Utah are:

    1. Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation,
    2. Navajo Nation,
    3. Northwestern Band of Shoshone Nation,
    4. Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah,
    5. San Juan Southern Paiute,
    6. Skull Valley Band of Goshute,
    7. Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and
    8. Ute Indian Tribe.

“The Navajo have been hit the hardest. They have the most immediate and dire need,” Tanana said.

Rounding up coronavirus help for the Navajo Nation

Tanana said the task force has been collecting items — specifically for the Navajo Nation — and monetary donations. She said a website dedicated to Utah Tribal COVID-19 Relief and resources can be found here.

With the absence of tourism dollars flowing to places such as Monument Valley, Native businesses that rely on that income stream are drying up.

“They’re suddenly faced with no income at all,” she said.

Tanana added that it’s hard to find items like thermometers, disinfectants and hand sanitizers.

“We’ve reached out to some of our Utah distilleries that are producing hand sanitizers to help meet that need,” Tanana said.

Legal aid

She said the task force recruited pro bono attorneys for legal issues exacerbated by COVID-19 such as housing, employment and domestic violence on tribal lands.

“[We’re] trying to help them access unemployment claims or other services that are available, attorneys can help with that,” Tanana said.

She said during the pandemic when experts advise everyone everywhere to stay home, one of the challenges has been finding shelter for victims of domestic violence.

“Coronavirus has changed the way we live our lives, but help is still there for you. Courts are still open, and we have attorneys who will help you navigate that,” Tanana said.

Stay healthy by staying home

The Navajo Nation has one of the strictest stay-at-home orders in the country, mandating residents not leave home unless there is an emergency or they are essential workers.

Even those who leave home for work must have documentation on a company’s letterhead with a verifiable contact number in order to leave.

“We love you. That’s why we’re saying this. We want you to live a long life, everyone. That’s why we have some tough-love messages,” said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.

Navajo life

One reason for the large number of cases on the nation is that multiple generations live in one home, said Nez.

“When one person gets Covid, goes home, they turn to infect the rest,” he said.

In addition, 30 percent to 40 percent of residents do not have running water, Nez said, which prevents people from washing their hands as often as recommended.

The Navajo Nation is a “food desert,” which means more people occupy the few grocery stores, convenience stores and gas stations to buy food, Nez said.

“We have to stay the course when it comes to staying home as much as possible, wearing masks in public, washing our hands often and taking every precaution to ensure our health and safety especially for our elders and children,” Nez said.

Decades of negligence and billions of dollars in unmet need from the federal government have left tribal nations without basic infrastructure like running water and sewage systems, along with sparse internet access and an underfunded Indian Health Service. according to a Mother Jones report.

Here’s where you can help.

Live Mic with Lee Lonsberry airs weekdays from 12:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. on KSL NewsRadio. Users can find the show on the KSL NewsRadio website and app.