Navajo Nation: Fears of hunger as COVID-19 lockdown to intensify

The continuing coronavirus pandemic in the United States is putting pressure on the food infrastructure of the Navajo Nation as authorities continue issuing restrictions in hopes of slowing the virus’s spread.

Navajo authorities have attempted to get ahead of the virus, instituting a curfew from 8:00pm to 5:00am, which local police started enforcing with fines on April 4.

But the number of cases has continued to climb. As of Monday, there were at least 384 confirmed cases and 15 deaths from COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, as of April 6.

“One death is one way too many,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez was quoted as saying by local media.
Navajo authorities on Monday said they would implement a 57-hour total lockdown from 8pm on April 10 until 5am on April 13, unless in case of an emergency. This could place huge burdens on food and water delivery on tribal lands.

“Our tribe is trying to take all safety measures to protect our communities and it has come to this weekend one now,” said Denisa Livingston, an organiser with the Dine Community Advocacy Alliance (DCAA), a group that mobilises “community members to combat obesity, diabetes, and other chronic health issues” by increasing awareness of traditional food and lifestyle choices.

The situation the coronavirus pandemic presents is difficult, but familiar to Indigenous communities in the US, Livingston told Al Jazeera.

“We have already been experiencing these issues pre-COVID[-19] … Now the world is finally experiencing what has been happening in Indian country.”
‘Food apartheid’

The Navajo Nation is roughly the same size as West Virginia, 71,000 square kilometres (27,413 square miles).

It is a semi-autonomous territory spanning three US states – Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. It essentially serves as a reservation for more than 350,000 Navajo (or Dine, in their language) people who live there.

There are 13 full-service supermarkets on the Navajo Nation, and one closed on April 1 after an employee tested positive for the coronavirus.

Though some have referred to the situation of food distribution in the Navajo Nation a “food desert”, Livingston used the phrase “food apartheid”.
Now, with the curfew, “hunger is becoming an issue”, Livingston said.

The lack of easy access to food – especially healthy options – has been a problem for Navajo people for years.

A 2006-07 study by Johns Hopkins University found that more than 76 percent of households faced food insecurity on the Navajo Nation.

According to the study, many Navajo also face obesity, diabetes and depression “and poor general health” – conditions believed to make people more susceptible to complications from COVID-19.

While difficulties around food access are rising during the coronavirus crisis, “at the same time resilience has been escalating”, Livingston said.

Without the ability to travel long distances, people on Navajo Nation can and should employ ancestral ways of life with greater frequency, according to the DCAA organiser.

These practices include cultivation of food at the home, making physical checks on elders in the community as opposed to using mobile phones and other forms of community support, including food deliveries to at-risk homes.

That community support does venture into the digital realm. There have been numerous fundraisers, including a GoFundMe for Navajo and Hopi families that has raised nearly $400,000 since March 15.

Much of the funds raised has been used to distribute food to hundreds of people, according to posts by organiser Ethel Branch.

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