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As Coronavirus Cases Rise, Navajo Nation Tries To Get Ahead Of Pandemic

Adrian Lerma, and her husband Michael, stand outside the grocery store in Window Rock, Ariz. They're buying food for elders in their community.
Courtesy of Adrian Lerma
Adrian Lerma, and her husband Michael, stand outside the grocery store in Window Rock, Ariz. They're buying food for elders in their community.

A good part of Percy Deal's day is spent hauling water for his family and livestock in two 55-gallon barrels. So when he heard on the radio how often and for how long he was supposed to wash his hands to avoid the spread of the coronavirus, he was overwhelmed.

"I mean that's like a gallon and a half or so," Deal says. "For me, I'm using the same water at least three or four times. I use the same water for cooking. I use the same water for cleaning up. So I can't be washing my hands that many times."

Forty percent of the Navajo Nation doesn't have running water or indoor plumbing. Deal lives on Black Mesa in northeast Arizona next to a coal mine that shut down late last year.

"Peabody Mine took all our water," Deal says. "Peabody closed then this virus comes along. It's one thing after another."

And mining did more than just drain the tribe's aquifer. Decades of uranium extraction have left generations of Navajos with major health problems. Adrian Lerma says these mines created conditions like autoimmune disorders that have left this community vulnerable to the coronavirus.

"There are people that do have compromised immune systems because of this contamination that's really affected the land, the water, the air, the people," Lerma says.

Lerma has been delivering food, water, wood, and medicinal herbs to the elders in her community who are on lockdown. But she says the food won't last long. About one in 10 Navajos don't have electricity.

"And so that means there's people that don't have refrigeration systems in their homes," Lerma says. "They can't store food. They don't have freezers. And so that puts them at a great disadvantage when it comes to stocking up on supplies they need."

There has been a surge of support for efforts like a GoFundMe Campaign to provide food and water for tribal elders, and for DIG DEEP to install more water systems.

The Navajo Nation also lacks enough health care workers, hospital beds and other equipment needed to address the crisis. Under normal circumstances, there are about 400 hospital beds for 170,000 people. So many patients have been flown to hospitals in border towns. Council delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty says the Indian Health Service was lacking resources before the virus.

"We know it's not adequate to just meet our basic needs. And so now as this pandemic moves forward across the world but on Navajo Nation we're also seeing those gaps in the immediate response," Crotty says.

The number of coronavirus cases on the Navajo Nation is multiplying rapidly. As of April 3, there are 241 people with the virus and eight confirmed deaths. The CDC says Native Americans are some of the most vulnerable to the coronavirus because of economic, geographic, and health conditions.

In 2009, American Indians and Alaska Natives died from H1N1 flu at four times the rates of all other racial and ethnic groups combined, according to a study by the National Institutes of Health.

But Navajo President Jonathan Nez has tried to get out in front of this pandemic. He's ordered a curfew. He has closed casinos and he has put a stop to gatherings of more than five people. Tribal officials say the virus' first cases can be pinpointed to an evangelical church rally.

Nez tells a Facebook Live event he's fed up with those who are not taking this seriously.

"Some of our people might not know that they have the virus," Nez says. "Don't be selfish. Think of your grandmas. Think of those people that have health conditions because those are the vulnerable population."

With public officials raising the alarm parents and kids have been under a lot of stress. For families like Adrian Lerma's, she, her husband and seven kids have been avoiding social media lately. Instead, they're returning to their traditions of telling stories — stories of survival and resilience.

"It lets them know these battles have been fought before in the past and that we can fight them again today," Lerma says.

Lerma says arming them with that knowledge makes her kids feel confident that they can get through this too.

Copyright 2020 KJZZ

Laurel Morales