Navajo Nation inspired by Māori actions during COVID-19 hardship

By Te Ao with MOANA

After half a century as a superpower, America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic should have been the envy of the world. Instead, it’s been shambolic -n just a few short months more than 67,000 people have died.

Social Demographer Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear says, "I mean, it's shameful. It's embarrassing. I compare it to what's happened in New Zealand where, you guys took such immediate steps so quickly to lock down, and here in the US we have States who haven't even engaged in a lockdown, South Dakota for example. 

"The South Dakota governor refuses to institute any sort of lockdown in a state where there are tremendous numbers of native people."

Coronavirus has exposed America’s racial disparities in the most deadly of ways.

Making up 33 per cent of the US population black Americans have accounted for 70 per cent of the dead from COVID-19.

Now 5.2 million Native Americans, are bracing themselves as Coronavirus starts to sweep through their reservations.

A team of indigenous researchers are trying to track the outbreak including Rodriguez-Lonebear.

She says, "We know health disparities are just nice words for systemic racism. We know why our people are dying at much higher rates, but mainstream America, they're seeing these cracks for the first time in the system."

Those cracks are the deepest in the Navajo Nation. If it were a state, it would be third behind New York and New Jersey for the highest amount of Coronavirus cases on a per capita basis.

So far, nearly 1900 Navajo have contracted COVID-19 with 60 deaths. With little or no federal assistance, it's been left to Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez to implement social distancing orders and curfews.

Nez says, "I hope that this is shedding some awareness throughout the country, that the first citizens of the United States of America are being ignored. We're raising the awareness. We hope Congress starts looking at tribal communities in a better light. But you know what, just like the Māori nation; the New Zealanders, we're resilient."

With the Navajo Nation sprawled across three states, Nez has set up food banks for the elderly and is trying to get water to the 30 per cent of homes on his reservation without plumbing.

But with lack of access to health care, pervasive poverty and poorer health outcomes, you create a perfect storm.

The Navajo has only 12 healthcare facilities spread over 27,000 square miles. That’s despite a treaty signed in the late 19th century,  guaranteeing all tribes healthcare. 

"It was signed to say that they will provide health care, education and a better quality of life for indigenous people here in this country. And today we are the forgotten citizens right in the middle of the most powerful nation in the world," says Nez.

In fact, it’s so bad the tribal reservations have had to ask for public donations to help with the COVID-19 outbreak.

"We're looking at this with horror and shame at what is happening in the United States.

"It's meant to be a world superpower and it just seems that there has been a failure of leadership from start to finish."

"There has been $8bil earmarked for 574 tribes throughout the country. We have what we have yet to see one penny of that $8bil."

Rodriguez-Lonebear says, "We haven't seen a penny of that federal stimulus money. We haven't seen any of the PPE that we've been promised.

"We are literally out there; tribes and communities, fighting with, these massive healthcare institutions.

"With states like New York and California, we're actually fighting with each other to secure PPE, to secure masks and gloves. I mean, why are we fighting each other when we should be working together."

Help, instead, has had to come from celebrities including our own Taika Waititi who has taken part in a Facebook lives urging the Navajo to stay at home.

"It sucks, this sucks, it sucks having to stay inside. I'm not even that young, I'm young at heart, but even I want to go out," Waititi says.

There has been much admiration from Native Americans about New Zealand’s handling of the Coronavirus outbreak. With the roadblocks led by Māori a particular example to the reservations.

"I get a lot of strength from, seeing what's happening with Māori and different iwi and how on the East Coast, you have iwi who have closed down borders. 

"Unfortunately, we have massive motorways running through our reservations that we can't close.

"The federal government prohibits us from closing our roads into our lands that we're supposed to apparently have sovereignty over," Rodriguez-Lonebear explains.

Now the tribal lands face the ultimate heartache – the prospect the US lockdowns will end too early - that coronavirus will then sweep through their lands and there will nothing to stop it.

"We're opening up our cities and our states, again, totally prematurely against all of the healthcare advice and you have communities like Indian reservations and rural communities for whom COVID has yet to even really hit.

"So the fear is that it's going to hit us tenfold."