Having recently volunteered for a month, as a nurse in Tuba City assisting the Navajo Nation with its coronavirus pandemic response, I wanted to address the rising COVID-19 cases in our state.
While at the Tuba City Regional Health Care Center, I was inspired by the dedicated medical staff that I had the privilege of working with. I left with a greater understanding of the hardships our indigenous communities have long suffered and continue to fight to overcome.
Our Navajo and Hopi neighbors have been disproportionately devastated by this pandemic. Native Americans make up less than 6% of Arizona’s population, yet account for over 18% of our state’s COVID-19 deaths.
Arizona’s tribal communities are particularly vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19 because of systematic disparities in their lack of access to quality health care, running water, sewer services, electricity, internet, and even nutritional food.
Further, the Navajo Nation has suffered decades of toxic water, soil, and air pollution from uranium and coal mining, and coal-powered plant emissions on tribal lands.
These environmental impacts have caused higher rates of underlying health problems like diabetes, heart conditions, and lung diseases such as asthma and emphysema — all of which put Arizona’s indigenous members at greater risk of dying from COVID-19.
Despite these adversities, the Navajo Nation’s President Nez has demonstrated admirable leadership by prioritizing the health and well-being of his community. He was able to flatten the curve by requiring widespread testing, contact tracing, curfews, and mandatory face masks in public. The Navajo Nation has tested 25% of its population for COVID-19, while Arizona has only tested 5%.
This pandemic has laid bare the inequities in infrastructure and medical care for our tribal nations and rural towns.
Our federal and state governments must make smart investments in broadband expansion in these underserved communities to close the digital divide that currently denies so many Arizonans and tribal nations access to cost-effective telehealth solutions, life-saving emergency services, educational, and job resources.
As a nurse and former Army senior medical advisor, I strongly encourage everyone to follow the CDC’s safety guidelines by practicing responsible physical distancing and wearing masks in public to avoid overwhelming our hospitals and health care workers.
Moreover, with 88% of Arizona’s hospital ICU beds already full, it’s critical that state leadership puts our community’s well-being first.
If we do our part now, we can all come out of this pandemic stronger together.