Skip to main content
Move the World.
Navajo Nation

Lead Images © Amadeustx, Mast3r / Adobe Stock

Sprawling across roughly 27,000 square miles of deserts and high plateaus, the Navajo Nation is not immune to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The sovereign nation's battle with SARS-CoV-2 has seen 2,373 confirmed cases, as of May 2, and 73 deaths. Its per capita infection rate trailed only New York and New Jersey by late April.

COVID-19 has also thrown the nation's chronic water scarcity into sharp relief: handwashing is a frontline defense, the most basic and effective form of containment, and it is being hampered by a lack of access to running water.

Roughly 30% of the nation's residents have no access to running water. The problem stems from scarce or degraded infrastructure, combined with geographic challenges, the distance between communities, and the latent danger of uranium and arsenic pollution in the Navajo Nation's aquifers and surface waters. Further exacerbating the issue is the presence of only one utility company, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, for servicing the entire nation.

"That (the lack of water access) is definitely something that is concerning, especially in times like now," says Emma Robbins, a Diné (a Navajo term for their people) and director of the Navajo Water Project, an all-Navajo initiative that provides clean water through delivery services and long-term infrastructure projects.

The story of the pandemic on the Navajo Nation is one not just of tragedy but resilience.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the project's focus from building up long-term water access — which would require exposing workers and families to possible infection — to providing water directly to people who need it.

navajo nation covid 19

Boxes of bottled water delivered outside a home in Navajo Nation. Credit: DigDeep

"We fill up the off-grid cisterns with our water delivery trucks," Robbins says, providing water for drinking and handwashing to roughly 300 families. Nestlé also donated 248,000 gallons of bottled water to the Navajo Nation, in partnership with the Navajo Water Project. The bottled water will be distributed by healthcare workers, fire departments, and local governments, Robbins says.

Their next step will be partnering up with the International Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Foundation to build handwashing stations throughout the Navajo Nation.

Stations are also currently being built by the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health (CAIH).

"We worked with tribal partners to understand the best type of set-up ... for them," says Laura Hammitt, director of infectious disease programs at CAIH.

navajo nation covid 19

Anthony Redhouse, a Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health employee, brings the pieces of a hand washing station to a household without access to clean, running water. Credit: Nina Mayer Ritchie

The design they came up with, in collaboration with members of the Navajo Nation, uses readily available materials that can be easily built and distributed. Right now, handwashing stations are being directed to those families without water access, and those who have confirmed cases of COVID-19 get priority, says Taylor Billey, a research program assistant at CAIH and member of the Navajo Nation.

Community health representatives and public health nurses are "really able to identify those families," Billey says, since they work directly with them.

Handwashing is a frontline defense, the most basic and effective form of containment.

When a family has been identified, a team from CAIH pre-assembles a handwashing station and either delivers it to their home or arranges to have it picked up — contact-free, of course. Once installed, families refill the stations with whatever methods of getting water they used before, or perhaps with deliveries from the Navajo Water Project.

navajo nation covid 19

Anthony Redhouse assembles a Center for American Indian Health hand washing station. Credit: Nina Mayer Ritchie

COVID-19, by targeting the elderly, carries a deeper psychological impact for the Navajo. Like many indigenous peoples, elders occupy a special place in Navajo society. And a death is not only the loss of a loved one — it can also mean a loss of culture. That threat is an existential one.

When Emma Robbins' grandfather died last year, his passing marked a loss for the whole community. "We just lost a huge chunk of culture there," she says. The danger feels extra real now. "Now with high risk people, which are elderly, there is a possibility of losing that culture."

But deep ties between elders, children, family, and community cut both ways for the Navajo Nation's COVID-19 response. Many Diné live in multigenerational households and hogans. While this means increased exposure, it also means that high-risk cohorts often have plenty of friends and family to assist them.

"For our tribal communities, family goes a long way," Billey says. "That's not just your immediate family, but our elders and cousins and aunts and uncles."

Practical help can mean organizing pickups and deliveries of food and supplies: the Navajo Nation is shockingly bereft of grocery stores, necessitating long trips to crowded stores with many empty shelves. It can also mean providing health information to those without internet (or even electricity), as well as translating it from English to Navajo.

"We have a lot of community members who care deeply about our area, about the Navajo Nation, our creation stories, our traditions," says Chantel Yazzie, a social media and marketing specialist with the To'Nanees'Dizi local government. "When it comes to community, everyone pitches in where it's needed or where they can."

Food donations are distributed, and Navajo craftsmanship is being applied to making masks; Yazzie's family is sewing them for elders in the community.

navajo nation covid 19

A member of the Navajo Nation uses their hand washing station in Many Farms. Credit: Nina Mayer Ritchie

The Navajo Nation has tribal sovereignty, which has been key in their response to the pandemic. The ability to pass their own policies — such as a strict curfew spanning the weekend — allows them to rapidly respond to local conditions, which might be lacking if they had to rely on state or federal governments.

"We take our sovereignty very seriously," Robbins says. "Those are really strict measures, but yes, we're able to do them, and it is effective."

Despite being hit hard by COVID-19 thus far, the story of the pandemic on the Navajo Nation is one not just of tragedy but resilience.

"We're doing the best we can with the resources that we have," Yazzie says. "And if those resources aren't there, our community takes it upon themselves to make sure that we get it."

Editor's note: This article was updated to correct Chantel Yazzie's and Anthony Redhouse's last names

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected]

Up Next

Mental Health
Remote Therapy Is As Effective As Face-to-Face, for Depression
remote therapy
Mental Health
Remote Therapy Is As Effective As Face-to-Face, for Depression
The pandemic has therapists' couches off limits. A new study finds that remote therapy may be as effective for depression as face-to-face, so I gave it a try.

The pandemic has therapists' couches off limits. A new study finds that remote therapy may be as effective for depression as face-to-face, so I gave it a try.

Public Health
How to Improve Shopping for the Elderly During a Pandemic
shopping for the elderly
Public Health
How to Improve Shopping for the Elderly During a Pandemic
To improve shopping for the elderly during the coronavirus pandemic, stores have set “seniors-only” hours, while volunteers deliver supplies for free.

To improve shopping for the elderly during the coronavirus pandemic, stores have set “seniors-only” hours, while volunteers deliver supplies for free.

Catalysts
How Old Skool Café Helped This Teenager Overcome Adversity After Trauma
How Old Skool Café Helped This Teenager Overcome Adversity After Trauma
Catalysts
How Old Skool Café Helped This Teenager Overcome Adversity After Trauma
After suffering a violent gang beating, Desiree Maldonado experienced major medical and emotional issues. She turned from a shy and nerdy 14-year-old kid to a hard and angry rebel. This is how one restaurant job changed her trajectory.
By Lise Metzger

After suffering a violent gang beating, Desiree Maldonado experienced major medical and emotional issues. She turned from a shy and nerdy 14-year-old kid to a hard and angry rebel. This is how one restaurant job changed her trajectory.

Inspiring
These Hero Pups Are Helping Veterans and Prisoners Heal
These Hero Pups Are Helping Veterans and Prisoners Heal
Watch Now
Inspiring
These Hero Pups Are Helping Veterans and Prisoners Heal
Hero Pups is an organization providing support dogs for military veterans and first responders. Now, prison inmates are helping train them - with great results.
Watch Now

Hero Pups is an organization providing support dogs for military veterans and first responders. Now, prison inmates are helping train them - with great results. In this video, Freethink reporter Michael O’Shea meets a veteran of the Iraq War who was struggling with PTSD. He was fortunate enough to receive a service dog from Hero Pups, and it’s helped relieve the stress and anger that used to keep him from leaving the...

Series Trailer
Freethink's 2019 Criminal Justice Week
Freethink's 2019 Criminal Justice Week
Watch Now
Series Trailer
Freethink's 2019 Criminal Justice Week
Join us as we go inside the criminal justice reform movement for an up close look at the people trying to fix our broken system.
Watch Now

There has never been this much energy and momentum behind criminal justice reform as there is today. In nearly every aspect, there is excitement and renewed optimism about delivering real reforms to help those who have suffered from a broken system for far too long. Freethink’s Criminal Justice Reform Week is focused on highlighting the most innovative reformers and ideas that are making real progress in reforming our...

Skoll
How To Teach Kids to Read in as Little as 50 Days
How To Teach Kids to Read in as Little as 50 Days
Watch Now
Skoll
How To Teach Kids to Read in as Little as 50 Days
1 in 10 people in the world today are illiterate. This program teaches people to read in as little as 50 days.
Watch Now

1 in 10 people in the world today can’t read. Pratham’s innovative approach is helping kids learn to read in as little as 50 days. Pratham’s methodology centers around teaching children based on their level rather than their age or grade. It began in India, where most kids are in school - but many aren’t able to read at grade level. The success of the core approach - teaching kids at their level and not neglecting those...

Helping Prisoners Overcome Trauma with Dance
Helping Prisoners Overcome Trauma with Dance
Watch Now
Helping Prisoners Overcome Trauma with Dance
Women in prison are regaining a sense of freedom — through dance.
Watch Now

Dance to Be Free is a program helping female prisoners overcome trauma with dance. While the inmates at the Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Corrections are physically incarcerated, the freedom that comes through dance helps them open up, enjoy themselves, and regain self-confidence. Founder Lucy Wallace began teaching dance in prison in order to help inmates, who often had unaddressed PTSD from physical or emotional...

The Hidden Side of "Slum" Life
The Hidden Side of
Watch Now
The Hidden Side of "Slum" Life
Life in favelas, or slum cities in Brazil, are often portrayed as some of the bleakest in the world. Faced with...
Watch Now

Life in favelas, or slum cities in Brazil, are often portrayed as some of the bleakest in the world. Faced with difficult hardships, many residents of Rocinha, Rio's largest slum city, are rising up and building better lives for themselves and each other. Not long ago, this incredible city was composed of little more than wooden shacks; today it's a thriving community built on top of an intricate labyrinth of housing,...