More than 18 months into the pandemic, the Navajo Nation, once the area in the United States hit hardest by Covid, is now one of the safest. Back in March 2020, clan members congregated for a social gathering and then returned to their homes in different regions throughout the reservation—many of which are multigenerational. It allowed the virus to take advantage of the tight-knit Navajo community, according to its president, Jonathan Nez.
“At that time, we thought we could stop it,” Nez said. “Once we brought that virus back into the home, it just spread and it took a toll on us. We had to mobilize, and a lot of it was getting out there on social media, getting on the radio and letting people know that the safest place to be was at home.”
The solution, Nez said, has been the community’s prioritization of collective responsibility in its ongoing vaccination efforts. “While the rest of the country were saying no to masks, no to staying home, and saying you’re taking away my freedoms, here on Navajo, it wasn’t about us individually,” he said. “It was about protecting our families, our communities and our nation.”
The Navajo Nation boasts a 72 percent vaccination rate among eligible residents—a benchmark higher than the nationwide rate of nearly 62 percent. The government has required vaccination for all of its employees since the end of September, and Nez is considering the need for an indoor vaccine mandate because of the emergence of the omicron variant.
“When we got hit hard last year, we had much media attention—national, international media attention—kind of, ‘Poor, poor Navajos. They could get wiped out,’” he said. “But once we started doing a good job, they went away. They don’t want to hear about a community or region really pushing back on this virus, because it goes against some of the politics out there.”
The Navajo Nation has reported over 39,000 cases since the onset of the pandemic, according to tribal data. In May 2020, the territory had 2,304.41 cases per 100,000 people—the highest infection rate in the United States.
The Navajo Area Indian Health Service, responsible for the primary clinics and hospitals for the population, serves around 240,000 tribal community members and was suffering from shortages in funding and supplies even before the pandemic. Dr. Kevin Gaines, the acting chief medical officer of the Navajo Area IHS, said the reservation is now facing its third surge of Covid cases, which has left the emergency rooms running at full capacity for hospital and ICU beds. “The staff are doing the best they can and doing a great job hanging in there and providing good-quality care to our patients who come in at this point.”
Mary Owen, president of the Association of American Indian Physicians and director of the Center of American Indian and Minority Health at the University of Minnesota, said that the reservation has long faced systemic barriers in health care from the lack of access to facilities due to transportation issues and immense poverty. “Nurses are dropping out of health care because they’re being asked to work double, triple shifts, and they can’t keep doing that,” she said. “Their morale is down. Some of them have died from this, and we’re seeing the same things happen in our schools.”
Owen is also worried about the prevailing mental health crisis on the Navajo Nation. Experts say that Indigenous people are at higher risk for mental health problems and financial difficulties due to Covid, which have been exacerbated by social isolation and the nation’s high death rate. “We already have higher rates than most populations with mental health [problems] because of all the intergenerational trauma and historical trauma,” she said. “Now we’ve had a virus that has been around for two years and there are additional threats with Omicron. We have the worst health disparities as it is, and they just got worse—if that’s even possible.”
Navajo resident Germaine Simonson spoke of a friend within her clan who lost five family members in one month—two directly to Covid and three to the grief associated with losing their loved ones. She said her friend had to put schooling on hold to cope with losing a family member almost every week.
“One of the things to understand in Native communities is that because of our kinship, our relationships, and our clan system, we tend to have big families,” Simonson said. “We are a network, and our connections are pretty vast, and so it’s hard when you’re connected like that as a people, you experience loss at a higher rate.”
Simonson owns Rocky Ridge Gas & Market, a grocery store that is one of only a handful in the nation. The business stands at the intersection of two gravel roads and serves customers within a 100-mile radius, with most driving as much as 30 miles to purchase basic necessities.
Milk, meat, and other food staples on the reservation are more expensive than in the rest of the country because of its geographic isolation. But to stay open throughout the pandemic, Simonson had to further mark up the prices on her products to afford operational costs.
“There were shortages on various products, so every week was different,” Simonson said. “Now we’re starting to see more of the things that we’re ordering. But for the future, I’m just really not sure—I’m dealing with a lot of issues. It’s about food prices, gasoline prices, the shape of our building, and all the challenges that I face doing business out here on the Navajo Nation.”
The nation’s leaders, however, are optimistic that the tenacity of their community, passed down over scores of generations of Navajos, will help them overcome the disproportionate effects of the global pandemic. According to Nez, this strength stems from the oldest generation—the ones who have been most at risk throughout the pandemic.
The elders taught the youth the importance of vaccinations through their teachings. Nez recalled a Navajo tale chronicling how a group of murderous monsters who preyed upon humans were defeated by hero twins.
“The twins gave weapons and armor to the Navajo citizens to help fight these monsters back then,” he said. “Fast forward, we have modern-day monsters. Our Navajo elders really understood the need for the armor, and the armor here is the vaccine, in the masks and being equipped with weapons to fight off these monsters.”