response: November/December 2020 Issue

Navajo Nation and COVID-19

As the Navajo Nation was made even more vulnerable by the global health crisis, United Methodist Women members responded.

Navajo Nation and COVID-19
Daryl Junes-Joe, center, delivers personal protective equipment to the Navajo Nation Fire Department in Shiprock, New Mexico.

I am Navajo, a Dine (de’ neh) woman as we call ourselves. I live in Shiprock, New Mexico, in the northwest corner of the state. Our people also live in northeast Arizona and southeast Utah. The entire reservation covers 27,413 square miles, about the size of West Virginia. Our population in 2016 was 356,890, with approximately half living outside the reservation.

Many Navajos live in multigeneration homes and reside in remote areas, near mountains or on the desert plains with livestock. About 30 percent of those who live on the reservation lack access to running water. Shiprock has a small food market where most people shop, making it difficult to keep physically distant. Our necessities are scarce on the reservation. The nearest Walmart is 40 miles away. We depend on our small local hospital for medical services.

Longtime inequities set Navajos up for chronic illness. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest prevalence of diabetes in the United States, more than twice that of non-Hispanic whites. These factors, among others, made the Navajo particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19.

When the global health crisis first hit the Navajo Nation, it hit hard. In mid-May, the rate of positive cases in the Navajo Nation was 2.3 percent, surpassing even New York’s 1.8 percent.

My local hospital quickly filled with COVID patients, and a nearby school gym was converted into cubicles with patient beds to accommodate the overflow. No one could enter the hospital, and with the pharmacy closed medication was given out in the parking lot by hospital staff. Many critical patients were flown to Albuquerque, Flagstaff or Phoenix, where some passed away hundreds of miles from home.

Responding to need

The Navajo Administration and local agencies put out requests for donations of supplies: protective face masks, water for remote areas, hay for livestock and monetary donations. Some families needed wood to warm their homes and cook. To support Native American families and live out our commitment as United Methodists to the Act of Repentance, the United Methodist Women Act of Repentance Working Group put out its own call to the United Methodist Women Program Advisory Group to encourage United Methodist Women members to contribute funds and supplies to the Navajo Nation. Members of the program advisory group also reached out to conference Committees on Native American Ministries for guidance concerning continuing needs. Their efforts really made a difference.

The response to the call was overwhelming. I received boxes and boxes of masks, gloves, hand sanitizers, cleaning supplies and pet food along with other donations. Monetary donations were used to purchase wood, sanitizing supplies, food and water. Many donations went to local churches, who were delivering food boxes to families. Volunteers delivered supplies to women’s shelters, day-care facilities, senior citizen programs, fire fighters, police and emergency medical personnel.

According to Cynthia Rives, member of the United Methodist Women Board of Directors Act of Repentance Group and co-organizer of the Navajo COVID response, nearly $19,000 was donated. Navajos received around $12,000, and the remaining $7,000 was given to other tribes across the country. The Navajos have received over 7,000 masks, 600 pairs of gloves, 300 face shields,100 bales of hay, cleaning supplies and bags and bags of vegetable seeds for summer gardens. An additional 2,000 masks were sent to other tribes. Many of the masks were made by United Methodist Women members and their friends and family. The National Network of Korean Women gave generously, and donations came from around the country through many conferences.

“I have been thrilled to see reports of donations come in from across the country to assist our Native siblings,” said Rives. “United Methodist Women members have responded with gifts large and small. There are members still sewing masks every day, and each mask is blessed before it is sent. Some have told me they feel called by God to continue to sew until everyone has a mask that needs one.

“When there’s a need our members respond!” she said. “It makes me so proud.”

Making safety a priority

On March 11, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez declared a public health state of emergency. March 17 was our first reported positive case. As the virus continued to spread, on March 29 the Navajo Nation implemented a curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. each night, stating, “in a short and rapid period of time, COVID-19 has appeared on the Navajo Nation and the number of cases continues to increase at an alarming rate.” Gatherings were limited to five people. In April, face masks became mandated. On May 19, Nez ordered weekend lockdowns for the Navajo Nation: All businesses were shut down for 57 hours, from 8 p.m. Friday to 5 a.m. Monday. A 32-hour weekend lockdown was still in place when this issue went to print.

Thanks to the nation’s safety regulations, residents’ compliance, the donations of funds and supplies, and our high rate of testing, our virus rate peaked earlier than expected in late April instead of mid-May. Safety measures were kept in place to flatten the curve and protect the Navajo Nation from surrounding areas where positive cases were rapidly rising.

As of September 9, the Navajo Nation reported the total number of COVID-19 positive cases to be 9,915. Approximately 7,167 individuals recovered from COVID-19, and 527 died. It could have been much worse without the supplies, donations, swift safety action and community compliance.

Faith, hope and love in action

The work of United Methodist Women members to help women, children and youth has resulted in a wonderful and exciting time for the Navajo Nation. Many who donated also sent messages of encouragement, and many of the masks were sewn by United Methodist Women units or groups, which made them even more special. It’s amazing how one call could reach hundreds, perhaps thousands in this land of the Dine. God is good all the time! We live with hope as we pray for families and strengthened bonds through these challenging days. We are so thankful to our Creator who blesses us always. Hundreds of grateful families have been touched by the donations. Ahe’hee’ (thank you) to United Methodist Women and everyone who contributed for your generosity. May you all be truly blessed and continue to walk in beauty.

Daryl Junes-Joe is a member of United Methodist Women Board of Directors from the New Mexico Conference.

Posted or updated: 11/10/2020 12:00:00 AM