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Navajo Nation makes wearing masks outside mandatory

The Navajo Nation acted fast on coronavirus. It’s still more vulnerable to the effects.

A home on the Navajo Nation in Arizona.
David McNew/Getty Images
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

In an effort to curb the rapid spread of the coronavirus in the Navajo Nation, the Navajo Department of Health issued an emergency public health order on April 17 mandating the use of masks outside the home, adding to existing orders that include sheltering in place and nightly and weekend curfews.

Native American communities have been hit particularly hard by coronavirus, the Navajo Nation the worst of all. As of April 18, the Nation, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, had 1,197 confirmed cases and 44 deaths. Were it a US state, it would fall at No. 3 for the number of confirmed coronavirus infections per capita, behind New York and New Jersey. And Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez warns that the disease’s peak could still be weeks away.

The high number of confirmed cases is in part due to the Nation’s rate of testing, which is higher than all states besides New York and Louisiana. Its government also responded to the crisis faster than neighboring states, declaring a state of emergency and enacting shelter-in-place orders in mid-March.

But the Navajo Nation is far more vulnerable to the devastating effects of coronavirus than those neighboring states thanks to the United States’ long history of deprioritizing investment in Native communities. As Maria Givens previously wrote for Vox:

While nearly no one in the country is safe from the coronavirus outbreak, its impact on Indian Country looks different from the rest of the US. Tribal elders are more at risk of Covid-19 because of high rates of diabetes and heart disease. Clean water for proper hand-washing is not accessible in all tribal communities, and overcrowding in Native homes is also common as many are multi-generational, creating social distancing challenges. Meanwhile, emergency federal funding for tribal health organizations has been delayed within the bureaucracy at US Health and Human Services. Then there are the negative economic effects, with hospitality businesses like casinos — often tribes’ greatest source of income — closing. Indian Country’s resources were stretched thin to begin with, and the coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating the disparities.

In a livestream roundtable discussion with tribal leaders, President Nez spoke of how Covid-19 is complicating these longstanding issues. “Fifteen to 30 percent of our people on the Navajo Nation don’t have clean running water,” he said. “Yet, we’re telling our folks to wash their hands with soap and water.”

And Diana Zirul, the vice chair of the Alaska Native Health Board, said, “While we consider this (intergenerational living) a cultural strength and value, it offers a unique risk of exposure to our elders and other family members who may be subjected to the virus. There’s a critical need for funding additional housing as well as facilities for quarantine isolation.”

Coronavirus has had an outsized impact on minority groups

Many minority groups across the US and the world are facing an exacerbated impact of coronavirus. Despite New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo calling the disease “the great equalizer” due to its ability to infect anyone regardless of race or status, that equality doesn’t extend to what happens after a person becomes infected. Coronavirus cases in New York City have disproportionately affected working class, non-white, and immigrant neighborhoods. Similar statistics are showing up in North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois. In the UK, one third of critically ill patients were found to be from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, despite making up 20 percent of the total population.

There are a host of complex and interrelated reasons for this: Residents of poorer neighborhoods often live in very close quarters, and many work in hospitality or other industries that don’t allow for telecommuting. These areas also often lack access to nutritious food and regular health care. While Latinx life expectancy is higher than the average population, rates of obesity and diabetes, which are associated with coronavirus complications, are also higher. Similarly, Native Americans have higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and cancer, and often live in crowded homes, many of which lack running water and electricity.

What’s particularly frustrating about the crisis faced by the Navajo Nation and other Native communities is that they were more proactive in combating coronavirus early than many other states. Eli Leslie, public information officer for the Navajo Department of Health, told the Salt Lake Tribune that the Navajo leadership had been pushing for test kits early on, which contributed to its high testing rate. “Our numbers will go up with these rapid tests coming in, but we will have more accurate [data] and a better understanding of results and therefore we can better prepare and help get people resources,” he said.

Yet the US government’s weak response to coronavirus will impact how Indian Country fares over the next few months. Congress has allocated millions of dollars to aid the Indian Health Service and tribal organizations, but 98 percent of tribal clinics have still not yet received funds.

Beyond the immediate dangers to public health, as Givens notes, the coronavirus crisis could leave an even bigger impact on Native communities who’ve only barely recovered from the 2008 recession. “If the government doesn’t act fast, tribal populations, prosperity, and ways of life could be set back for a generation,” she writes. The Navajo Nation has continued to enact safety measures like curfews and has now mandated masks in public, yet it still could be among the many casualties of a virus that hurts minorities worst of all.

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