Pandemic Chronicles: Echos of History in the COVID-19 Response for the Navajo Nation

During the Cold War, hundreds of Navajos developed cancer and respiratory illness as a result of uranium mining and nearby nuclear testing. Now, once again, a respiratory illness is ravaging the Navajo Nation: COVID-19.

In late-May 2020, the Navajo Nation surpassed New York and New Jersey for the highest per capita number of coronavirus cases in the United States. The response, or lack thereof, by the settler-state continues a violent history. The Navajo Nation has endured forced relocation, mass incarceration, exploitation of both land resources and human labour, insufficient compensation, and underspending on healthcare.

Before coronavirus, there were nuclear weapons. Historically, the Navajo have been disproportionately affected by the pursuit of nuclear weapons. In other words, the quest to guarantee American security in traditional terms made the Navajo insecure in health terms.

Intersecting historic traumas, accumulated stressors and poor social determinants are crucial in understanding what the Navajo Nation is currently experiencing with regard to COVID-19.

Unexplained Dangers

Navajoland (or Diné Bikéyah) extends through what is today called Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. It is the largest land area retained by an Indigenous nation in the U.S. For reference, it is larger than 10 of the 50 states in the U.S. But, Modern Navajoland is a recent construction and only a small portion of the ancestral Navajo homeland.

Between 1864 and 1866, Navajos were forced to walk from their traditional land to the Bosque Redondo Reservation at Fort Sumner, in current-day New Mexico. This period in Navajo history is called “The Long Walk”. While intended to be a reservation, Bosque Redondo functioned as an internment camp. Nearly one-third of those interned there died of disease, exposure and hunger, held captive by the U.S. Army. This deportation and incarceration amounts to an attempted ethnic cleansing of the Navajo people by the federal government.

In 1868, the Treaty of Bosque Redondo was negotiated between Navajo leaders and the federal government allowing the surviving Navajo to return to a reservation on a portion of their former homeland. Although Navajoland appeared to be little more than a desolate section of the Southwest, oil was discovered in the 1920s. Thus, a century of exploitation of valuable resources on Navajoland began, including oil, gas, coal, uranium and water. By the late 1940s, the U.S. government began purchasing all domestically mined uranium in an effort to curb its reliance on foreign sources.

Large uranium deposits were mined on and near Navajoland, absent much environmental regulation. Uranium mining drew many Indigenous peoples, specifically the Navajo, to work in the mines and mills. The mining endangered thousands of Navajo workers and contaminated the air and water. The Navajo were not informed of the risk of radioactive materials. So, they allowed their livestock to drink from contaminated pools and built homes out of discarded material from the mines. Throughout the Cold War years, many of the Navajo developed cancer and respiratory illness as a result of uranium mining and nearby nuclear testing.

To address this inequity, a reservation-wide effort resulted in activists working with political leaders and attorneys to write radiation compensation legislation, which passed in 1990. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) granted compensation for those affected by the radiation. It was amended in 2000 to address shortcomings with the original legislation.

A Slow and Inadequate Response

Today, a new respiratory disease threatens Navajo communities. The virus spread rapidly among the Navajo since the first case was confirmed at the end of March, even though the tribal government was quick to impose some of the strictest stay-at-home orders in the country, which included locking down schools and imposing curfews.

Recent figures suggest that COVID-19 has penetrated 2.3% of the population. There are several reasons why Navajoland has been hit so hard by this pandemic. Many Navajo residents live in multigenerational homes, making it nearly impossible to stop the spread within a home. Furthermore, over 30% of residents do not have access to clean running water, posing serious challenges to sanitation and handwashing. Many houses that lack running water also lack electricity, which can make exposure increase as folks have to travel to get food every day since there is no effective way to store it. Unemployment prior to the coronavirus pandemic was at 42%, and 43% of Navajos live below the poverty line.

As discussed in a previous article for the Pandemic Chronicles, minority populations have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. This emphasizes the relevance of social determinants of health. In other words, the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age determines the quality of their healthcare access. 

In an interview for this article, Len Necefer, Assistant Professor in the American Indian Studies program at the University of Arizona, asked readers to consider, for example, the impact of food deserts and health disparities for the Navajo people. Rates of diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and other lifestyle diseases are exacerbated by food deserts and destruction of traditional food systems. After WWII, rations and commodity food were dumped on reservations. But, the effect was to replace healthy food with cheap processed food which had adverse health outcomes for the Navajo.

The lack of adequate access to healthcare for Indigenous people—despite it being a treaty right—has resulted in high rates of diseases (e.g. diabetes, heart disease and asthma) that make it more likely for people to be hospitalized and even die, if they contract COVID-19. Moreover, the Navajo Nation is beset with widespread structural, economic and health injustices which have helped coronavirus spread and hampered efforts to curtail it.

A slow and inadequate response from the federal government has exacerbated the problem. The Navajo Nation received $600m of federal coronavirus relief funding six weeks after it was promised, a week after the government missed a congressional deadline for distribution, and only after suing the federal government over who is eligible for the money.

This raises questions surrounding the U.S.’ violation of its treaty obligations. In exchange for their land, many tribes received guarantees of healthcare and education. But for the Navajo, healthcare and education have been continually underfunded. In short, the U.S. has failed to adequately fund healthcare, among other necessary services on the reservation. For example, the largest ICU of the 4 Indian Health Service hospitals in the Navajo area has only 6 rooms. Because of this, Navajos who require medical attention must be flown far from their homeland. It doesn’t help matters that the Trump administration has undercut tribes.

Plagued by a Century of Respiratory Illness

Uranium mining in Navajoland may have ended in 1986, but as recently as 2016, the CDC reported that babies are still being born to Navajo parents with traces of uranium in their urine. Arsenic exposure, which often can accompany uranium exposure, has been shown to be a factor that can increase the risk of diabetes—a known comorbidity factor of COVID-19.

Indigenous nations have been subjected to significant amounts of radioactive and otherwise hazardous waste as a result of living near nuclear test sites and uranium mines.

We can see echoes of the “missiles vs. medical masks” debate in this environmental injustice. In the quest to guarantee American security (in traditional terms) by building nuclear weapons, the U.S. nuclear industrial complex made its indigenous communities—the Navajo foremost amongst them—insecure in health terms. Because the U.S. has still not gotten its priorities straight, the same community is suffering needlessly again. 

Systems change is necessary to address the legacy of environmental and health inequities for Navajo people. Justice for the Navajo requires swift congressional action on two fronts: first, bolstering federal assistance for Indigenous nations in the fight against coronavirus, and second, updating the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), which is due to expire in 2022 and is in urgent need of reform.

You can find the original post on the Outrider Foundation’s website.

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