Doctors Without Borders — an international organization that provides medical aid to people in areas stricken by war, famine, or natural disasters — has dispatched a team to the Navajo Nation in the US to help with the coronavirus crisis unfolding on the Native American reservation.
A team of nine medical professionals arrived in New Mexico to help Pueblo communities in mid-April, and towards the end of the month they started working with the Navajo Nation too, communications officer Nico D’Auterive told BuzzFeed News.
Consisting of doctors, nurses, logisticians, and water and sanitation experts, the team is primarily there to provide guidance and support to healthcare facilities, not direct medical help, D'Auterive said. They will be there through June, and may extend their stay depending on how the situation develops in those areas.
Bleu Adams, a Navajo business owner and co-founder of Protect Native Elders, a group providing coronavirus relief to indigenous communities, has been distributing personal protective equipment around the reservation in her own time. Adams told BuzzFeed News, "It’s good that Doctors Without Borders is coming in," if only to raise awareness about the challenges the Navajo Nation is facing.
"People need to know why we’re in this situation. I really want them to understand the systemic issues that are creating this [health crisis]," Adams said. "Our relationship with the federal government has never been great, so it's not a surprise to us that we have to look for outside help."
With one of the highest rates of coronavirus cases per capita in the country, the Navajo Nation is grappling with a dire public health crisis. Among 350,000 people on the reservation, there are 3,204 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 102 known deaths to date, according to the Navajo Department of Health.
D’Auterive said the decision to send a team to the Navajo Nation and pueblos in New Mexico was due to "the high rates of [coronavirus] infection, and also just the fact that these communities are under-resourced at all times, and we're especially seeing that now with the pandemic."
The CARES Act, which President Trump signed into law on March 27, allocated $8 billion in relief funding to tribes across the country, $600 million of which went to the Navajo Nation. But the infrastructure in place is so weak that volunteers like Adams have had to step in to distribute much-needed supplies.
Unpaved dirt roads across the reservation's 27,000 square miles make it hard for even someone like Adams, who has a home on the reservation, to move around. Many people live in small multigenerational homes that lack running water and electricity. Internet access, which would help speed up the dissemination of new information and guidance about the coronavirus, is also extremely limited.
Native Americans are also disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19 due to common underlying health conditions like diabetes and asthma. On Navajo Nation, there are longstanding issues that contribute to poor health, like water sources contaminated by abandoned uranium mines.
The Indian Health Service, already perpetually underfunded, has struggled to keep up as cases among Native Americans rise. In the Navajo area, where there are only 12 IHS facilities for a reservation bigger than the state of West Virginia, patients with severe coronavirus symptoms have been airlifted to hospitals outside the reservation.
That indigenous communities must work with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a federal agency, also weighs down any progress with a mountain of bureaucracy. Because of that, Adams said, "everything moves at a snail's pace."
Though there are systemic issues that have exacerbated the Navajo Nation's coronavirus crisis, Adams said they are doing what they can.
"We're very strong, innovative people," she said. "We just need those allies and advocacy to change things at the federal level so we can become independent and self-sufficient."
The Navajo Nation isn't the only place in the US where Doctors Without Borders has been responding to the coronavirus crisis. The organization has COVID-19 response teams in Puerto Rico and Florida, and is partnering with providers to help people who are experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity in New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic.
It's the second time Doctors Without Borders has worked in the US, D'Auterive said, after it sent out a small team to New York in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Designed to help those in conflict zones or places ravaged by infectious disease, the international medical organization has cited the "significant health inequities" in the US as a reason for its COVID-19 response operations in the country.
"There is a clear need for additional support for the COVID-19 response," the organization said, "especially among vulnerable communities with limited access to healthcare, shelter, or basic sanitation."