How the Navajo people became warriors against the COVID-19 monster

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The president of Navajo Nation credited the Navajo people for the successes the area has had in battling COVID-19 when he spoke to ABC4 News on Friday.

“We call it a monster, here, on Navajo Nation,” President Jonathan Nez said of the Coronavirus. “Since time immemorial, there have been many monsters who have come onto the Navajo Nation and plagued our people. This is just another that has snuck into our homes, our communities and our homeland.”

If the Coronavirus is a monster, it did not just sneak, it went on rampage across the Navajo Nation early in the pandemic.

Coronavirus cases surged on the Navajo Nation, peaking mid-May with 238 daily cases and a rolling 7-day average of 135 cases per day, according to the Navajo Department of Health’s COVID-19 Dashboard. It became one of the worst outbreaks in the country at the time.

According to President Nez, their way of life prepared the Navajo people to do battle with this monster. “Our young people know to be warriors[…] I think our young people have done a great job in sheltering and protecting our most vulnerable population here on the Navajo Nation.”

Shortly after the peak in cases, Navajo Nation introduced a “complete 57-hour weekend lockdown,” which implemented heavier restrictions than the previous weekend lockdown and required “all residents to remain at home except essential workers, first responders and health care workers” from 8 p.m. Friday to Monday morning.

The weekend lockdown did not give exemptions to businesses, either, even those deemed “necessary.” The order required all businesses to “cease all operations” during the weekend lockdown.

“It is the Navajo people who have followed through on the public health recommendations,” said President Nez to ABC4’s Emily Florez on Friday.

Navajo Nation also enforced those recommendations by implementing a mask mandate in early April along with mandatory curfews.

The Navajo Police Department and county sheriff departments also established road checkpoints throughout the Navajo Nation during some weekend lockdowns. People who violated the curfew received a criminal nuisance citation and could be fined up to $1,000 or see up-to 30 days in jail. 

While strict compared to measures in surrounding states, like Utah and Arizona, it seemed to have the desired effect.

Graph depicts Navajo Nation COVID-19 case trends as of Sunday, October 18, 2020. (source: Navajo Dept. of Health)

COVID-19 cases decreased. In August, Navajo Nation lifted some pandemic restrictions by moving to a 32-hour lockdown, instead of a 57-hour one.

“We’re very excited. We have a decrease in positive cases. Good job to Dineh. You all have done an outstanding job out there,” Vice President Myron Lizer told the Navajo people back in August.

But, when it seemed they might be headed toward a second wave, Navajo Nation returned to the 57-hour lockdown and President Nez re-issued a stay-at-home order in late September.

Through it all, Navajo Nation also committed to rampant testing, according to President Nez. He said, per capita, they test more than surrounding states, with 50% of people receiving COVID-19 tests.

There are some on the Navajo Nation who do not have running water or electricity, so healthcare professionals have gone door-to-door to communicate information about the virus, said President Nez.

Support has come from the outside as well. “Many people came to our aid,” said Nez, thanking the people who sent supplies from Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Denver. He also thanked Navajo people who live outside Navajo Nation and collected supplies.

One such effort came from the group Adopt a Native Elder, which delivered food, water and firewood to Navajo Nation elders. 

The assistant director of the group, CJ Robb spoke to ABC4 News back in September about the importance of supporting the remaining elders through this pandemic, explaining that “the elders that we are serving right now are the last generation of traditional indigenous people in the United States. They still speak Navajo, they practice traditional ceremonies, they dress traditionally. Many of them never left the reservation their whole life.” 

“There’s a lot of lessons learned since this virus first came onto our land,” said President Nez. “Here on the Navajo Nation, it was about incorporating our culture, our tradition, and our teachings into fighting this virus.”

It’s a mentality that he said could apply outside the Navajo Nation as well. “We are all in this together, what affects us here on the Navajo Nation effects those off the Navajo Nation and vice verse,” said Nez. “We’re all in this together, and together he can fight this monster out of our communities.”

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