Weeks of delays in delivering vital coronavirus aid to Native American tribes exacerbated the outbreak, the president of the hard-hit Navajo Nation said, lashing the administration of President Donald Trump for botching its response.
Jonathan Nez told AFP in an interview that of the $8 billion promised to the United States’ tribes in a $2.2 trillion stimulus package passed in late March, the first tranche was released just over a week ago.
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The lag followed a legal challenge brought by more than a dozen tribes, including the Navajo, after the executive branch announced it would give part of the money to for-profit corporations run by Native Alaskans.
This would have deprived cash-strapped tribal governments of millions of dollars and was not the intent of Congress, the plaintiffs argued. And a federal judge found in their favor earlier this month.
“They weren’t even going to give us these monies until we had to file a lawsuit against the federal government,” said Nez.
“We could have gotten alternative care sites up and going a lot quicker,” added the 44-year-old, referring to newly built medical facilities where people with mild to moderate cases of COVID-19 can recover without going home.
This is especially vital in Indian Country, where tribes often live in cross-generational homes, increasing the rate of spread to the elderly.
More than 4,200 of the Nation’s 175,000 citizens had tested positive as of late Tuesday, along with 146 deaths — a higher per capita fatality rate than in all but four US states.
“Some of these numbers would have been less,” added Nez.
– Broken promises –
Nez spoke to AFP as the sun set on the tiny community of Casamero Lake, where he was leading an aid distribution drive.
It was his final destination after a day spent criss-crossing the vast desert territory of towering sandstone mesas and majestic canyons that straddles the states of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
Gesturing to the volunteers behind him who were loading up locals’ pick-up trucks with food, water, and cleaning supplies, he added: “This is not even money coming from the federal government.”
The supplies had come instead from aid groups whom he called “friends of the Navajo Nation.”
While former president Barack Obama created a high-level council on Native American affairs to enhance the White House’s relationship with tribes, the body was disbanded by President Donald Trump when he took office, added Nez.
The group was restarted two weeks ago, but Nez was dismissive, saying the move had come too late.
Trump has a fraught history with Native Americans — in March, for example, he revoked the land reservation designation status of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribes in Massachusetts, a move decried by critics as a callous land grab.
But the problems facing the Native Americans also long predate the current administration, added Nez.
Like other tribes, the Navajo gave up vast swathes of land in exchange for federal medical care and education in perpetuity under a treaty signed in 1868.
But experts say the United States has consistently failed to hold up its end of the bargain.
When the US began piping water into homes in the early 20th century, much of Indian Country was left out.
Today, about 30 percent of the Navajo Nation’s citizens lack access to running water, which health authorities have repeatedly stressed is necessary to keep the virus at bay through hand washing.
The Indian Health System has remained chronically underfunded, even in comparison to other state-run health programs, leaving the Nation short of clinics and personnel needed to cope with a major outbreak.
Poverty associated illnesses that exacerbate COVID-19, such as heart disease and diabetes, also played a role in the high rate of deaths.
– Resilience –
Coronavirus cases should soon be approaching their peak here, after authorities successfully implemented strict mask-wearing measures and tough evening and weekend curfews.
Contact tracing teams are ramping up their work, while about 13 percent of the population has now been tested.
Nez said his government had now received $600 million in aid, and although up to 40 percent more remained pending as the result of bureaucratic delays, he planned to put it to use on long term projects.
This would involve enticing small businesses to set up in order to drive economic development, and making a start on much-needed infrastructure projects like water and internet access.
“We’re not just going to feel sorry for ourselves,” said Nez, harking back to how the Navajo have always overcame past waves of disease and colonial oppression. “We’re resilient.”