By Mordecai Specktor
Coronavirus in Indian Country
Are readers of The Circle taking precautions against the deadly onslaught of the coronavirus? Washing your hands frequently? Wearing a face mask when out in public? I hope that you’re listening to directives from medical experts, and not the inane blathering from Trump, who recently recommended injecting Lysol, or shining a bright light up your keister, to kill the virus.
In my column for the April issue, I mentioned a Vox.com article by Maria Givens, which covered the high rate of COVID-19 cases on the Navajo Nation. And as it happens, I was watching the PBS NewsHour in late April, and learned that if the great Navajo reservation were a state, it would rank third in the nation, after New York and New Jersey, in the per capita rate of coronavirus cases.
As of April 24, at least 52 residents of the Navajo Nation have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, for which we have no immunity and no vaccine has been developed. In Arizona, 20 percent of the deaths from COVID-19 have been Native people, who are 5 percent of the state’s population.
The report quoted U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams: “We tell them to wash their hands, but a study showed 30 percent of the homes on Navajo Nation don’t have running water.”
PBS NewsHour reporter Stephanie Sy pointed out that one in five Native Americans has diabetes; along with obesity, such underlying conditions make COVID-19 much more dangerous. The Navajo youth also have “worse health outcomes,” she said.
In the absence of competent and sane leadership from the top of the federal executive branch, governors, tribal officials and local authorities are formulating policies to “flatten the curve” – prevent surges in infection that would overwhelm our medical facilities.
A good friend on the Winnebago reservation in Nebraska recently mentioned the curfew, 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., that has been imposed there to enforce the tribe’s stay-at-home order. She noted that there’s not much reason to go out in the evening in her rural area, in any case.
On the Red Lake Nation in northern Minnesota, a “Medical Martial Law” order was issued, effective April 3. After reports that a Red Lake member had tested positive for the coronavirus, “stringent” restrictions on travel and public gatherings were put in place “for the protection of the health and safety” of band members. Like Winnebago, residents of the Red Lake reservation are restricted to their homes from 10 p.m. through 6 a.m., as per a resolution passed at a March 23 special meeting of the tribal council. The Medical Martial Law ordered, signed April 1 by Darrell G. Seki, the Red Lake chairman, imposes a quarantine; residents are restricted “to their homes and yards so that the COVID-19 virus may be contained from spreading.”
Further, Red Lake residents are limited in their movements to only shop for food and necessities, “care for elders and vulnerable persons or others requiring assistance,” travel to medical appointments and to work, if they are essential employees.
And at the Cheyenne River Sioux reservation, a dispute is brewing after tribal authorities erected a checkpoint on Hwy. 212, in order to stop outsiders, who might be infected with coronavirus, from entering the reservation. In late April, BIA director Darryl LaCounte sent a letter to Cheyenne River tribal chairman Harold Frazier, instructing him that the South Dakota authorities had to approve any attempt to stop non-tribal traffic on US 212. Frazier responded in a letter that said, “he was surprised to learn the BIA director thought state government owned US 212,” according to a report on KELO TV news.
“Several tribal governments in the region, including those for the Cheyenne River, Pine Ridge and Standing Rock reservations, have issued more restrictive orders regarding non-essential travel during the COVID-19 crisis than Governor Kristi Noem has for South Dakota,” KELO reported.
The coronavirus pandemic has been attended by a virtual collapse of the U.S. economy. Right-wing, Trumpite factions, supported by monied interests, have recently organized #ReOpen protests around the country, including at the Minnesota governor’s residence in St. Paul. These gatherings with hundreds of participants have violated physical distancing edicts, and some of the protesters likely will spread coronavirus infection to others.
It’s been weird over recent weeks, but I’m going to do my patriotic bit and continue to work as an essential employee in the newspaper business. I will keep my distance from others and spend evenings on the couch, smoking weed (legally prescribed medical cannabis) and watching Netflix.
We’re all in this together.