Navajo Nation Hit Hard By Virus, Enters Lockdown
May 16, 2020, 11:12 PM | Updated: May 17, 2020, 4:42 pm
OLIJATO-MONUMENT VALLEY, Utah – As Utah moved to the “yellow” phase on Saturday, members of the hard-hit Navajo Nation in San Juan County remained under strict lockdown.
The Navajo people have named COVID-19 “Dikos Ntsaaigii,” which means “the cold that is enormous.” For them, the pandemic has yet to hit its peak.
The majority of COVID-19 cases in San Juan County were on the Navajo Nation, where rural communities already faced a lack of electricity and water — not to mention an already existing shortage in healthcare services.
Governor Gary Herbert said the Navajo Nation — which takes up the southern portion of the county — is sovereign and makes its own directives.
Dr. Phillip Smith is one of the doctors working on the Navajo Reservation in Monument Valley. He’s also one of few native doctors who can speak with patients in Navajo.
“(COVID-19) had a great impact,” Smith said. “We probably have about 190 cases and we’ve had three deaths (in the Utah portion of the reservation).”
The Navajo Natio has one of the areas hardest-hit by the pandemic as Smith’s daughter, Heather Tanana, explained.
“That’s where our Navajo is leading, with the third-highest infection rate in the country when you look at the entire country,” said Tanana, who is a research professor with the Stegner Center at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law.
She is part of the Utah Tribal COVID-19 Relief Effort, which is dedicated to providing COVID-19 aid to Utah’s tribal lands.
On the Navajo Nation, the death count reached 140 Saturday, with 3,912 COVID-19 positive cases. The Navajo Nation is located within portions of Utah, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona.
Amongst the casualties was Smith’s sister Florence, who lived on one of the hardest-hit reservations in McKinley County, New Mexico.
“She passed away in an ICU and we had her funeral on Thursday. Of course, it was a difficult setting, mainly because we couldn’t gather,” Smith said.
As the rest of Utah entered the “yellow” phase Saturday, a strict curfew remained in place on the Navajo Nation.
“We are presently in a lockdown on the reservation, about 57 hours each weekend, and will continue for the next three weeks,” Smith said.
All stores, gas stations and restaurants were closed, and leaving home was limited to approved essential workers with permission slips — like Smith. Non-compliance can result in fines of up to $1,000.
“Police are enforcing,” Smith said.
But even when stores are open, essential supplies were scarce and hard to come by.
“Then when they were able to get supplies, they could only buy it one roll at a time,” Tanana said.
Smith said the next closest chain grocery store or Wal-Mart is about three hours away — in any direction.
“Se just have one store in Monument Valley and it has remained open but the supplies are limited because if you run out of necessities in cities, you certainly will run out in a rural setting,” Smith said.
Smith said like many other communities, Monument Valley’s economy has taken a major blow as it is heavily dependant on the tourism industry — like many others, under a complete shutdown.
“We used to get busloads of people from Germany, from Italy, from France (and) England,” Smith said. “We took them on tours, and people were able to sell their crafts; well now they haven’t been able to do that.
This was one of the reasons Tanana said the effects of the pandemic will have an impact, long after other communities begin on the road to recovery.
“It’s going to be sometime before the curve is flattened in Indian Country and before conditions improve and so until that happens, they really need the support of our communities,” Tanana said.
Smith said several organizations and churches, like The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, have sent food donations, hygiene kits and personal protective equipment. However, more help was still needed.
Tanana said they are planning for the virus’ resurgence in the fall.
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