Members of Navajo Nation Reflect on COVID-19's Devastating Impact: 'We Have to Do Better'

"They did what many thought was impossible: under the most difficult of circumstances, they flattened their curve," Cynthia McFadden says of the Navajo Nation

Navajo nation
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Cynthia McFadden. Photo: SPENCER MCFADDEN HOGE

Members of the Navajo Nation are opening up about the devastating impact of COVID-19 and how they've managed to flatten the curve despite a constant uphill battle to protect their people.

The Navajo Nation has struggled a great deal ever since the coronavirus swept through their lands and infected over 9,000 people, ultimately killing 454 as of Thursday, according to the Navajo Department of Health.

With those confirmed cases, the nation still has a higher per-capita infection rate than anywhere in the U.S., along with an unemployment rate approximately three times higher than the U.S. average, Today reported.

They're also dealing with a staggering poverty issue that's left between 30 and 40 percent of homes in the area without running water or electricity, which makes preventative tasks like hand washing nearly impossible.

Cynthia McFadden, a senior investigative correspondent at NBC, recently took a trip to the Navajo Nation with her son, where they connected with several members to discuss their struggles and the ways in which they've managed to curb the spread.

"Ever since we started reporting on the crisis on Navajo Nation in April, I haven't been able to get the people there out of my mind," McFadden tells PEOPLE. "It was deeply moving to visit there in person and to see first-hand their astounding resilience and determination to protect one another."

"They did what many thought was impossible: under the most difficult of circumstances, they flattened their curve. And they did it in a place where 30-40 percent of homes have no running water," she adds of the area, which straddles the borders of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.

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Cynthia McFadden at the Navajo Nation. NINA MAYER RITCHIE

According to several Navajo members, Native Americans have often been treated inhumanely by people outside of their reserve, which has made obtaining adequate resources to fight against COVID-19 incredibly difficult.

"Everything that people read about in our history books, like, 'Oh that's so sad that happened to the Indians' — that never ended," Jeneda Benally, a bassist and vocalist for a Navajo punk rock band whose father is a medicine man, said in the clip. "It's still here."

"My father, people tell him you're not welcome," added Jenada's brother, Clayson Benally. "There used to be signs that said no Indians or dogs allowed. That's just part of the reality that's ingrained."

Dr. Laura Hammitt told Today that Native Americans currently have the highest rates of hospitalization of any racial group in the United States due to COVID-19.

Part of that reason is due to the fact that the Navajo Nation has just 12 health care facilities across 27,000 square miles. Many citizens also suffer chronic health issues like diabetes, heart disease and obesity, which puts those who contract the virus at a higher risk of severe illness, according to NBC News and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"This isn't a matter of race but a matter of institutional racism that has made people at higher susceptibility for infectious diseases and kept them at higher susceptibility for many, many years," Hammitt, who specializes in infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, said in the clip.

Hammitt's fellow Johns Hopkins research associate Shardai Pioche also pointed out that Native Americans are likely to struggle with mental health issues, such as PTSD and depression, and substance abuse.

Besides reportedly having the highest rate of suicides, Pioche said many Native Americans have died from drinking hand sanitizer that was mixed with water as a substitute for alcohol.

"It's called 'Ocean Water' here on the reservation, so some have passed away from drinking that," she explained in the clip. "If you are not able to afford to buy alcohol, there's hand sanitizer that's available and it's only $3. It goes hand-in-hand with poverty."

Despite their many struggles, the Navajo Nation has managed to curb the spread, implementing a number of safety measures to keep their people safe from COVID-19 such as a nightly curfew at 8 p.m., social distancing, and mandating facial coverings.

A few months ago, the Nation recently received $50 million in funds from the federal CARES Act, which aimed to help distribute services and equipment to water infrastructure projects, personal protective equipment and hazard pay for workers, among other things, the Arizona Daily Sun reported.

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U.S. Congress members also provided the Navajo Nation with $714 million worth of aid, but the reserve's president Jonathan Nez told Today he's proposing over $300 million more to get their people water, electricity, broadband and housing.

"There are a lot of needs... Don't get me wrong, we are grateful for the aid," he said in the clip. "We have no cure, there's no vaccine, so how do we prepare for the future? If we can get running water to our citizens, it will help push COVID-19 off our nation and any future virus."

Added Jeneda: "We need systems that invest in our people — that are not Band-Aid solutions but really, truly invest in the strength and resilience of our people. We have to do better."

As of Monday afternoon, there have been over 4.6 million cases and at least 155,336 deaths attributed to coronavirus in the United States, according to The New York Times.

More of McFadden's interview about the Navajo Nation is set to air on NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt on Monday at 6:30 p.m. ET.

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