Navajo leaders worry for already isolated community facing coronavirus

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Los Angeles (AFP)

Leaders of the Navajo Nation -- whose members live on the biggest Native American reservation in the United States -- are scared about what the coronavirus could mean for their already fragile community.

The indigenous tribe has closed its borders and imposed a curfew as the pandemic has already claimed seven lives among its members.

"We have to isolate ourselves to isolate the virus," Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement, ordering lockdown measures throughout the tribe's territory in the southwestern US.

"Let’s do it for our elders, our children, and our high-risk individuals."

The reservation is home to some 175,000 people who are already sometimes quite isolated in the 27,400 square-mile (71,000 square kilometer) territory that spans three US states.

Many are elderly or are suffering from chronic conditions like diabetes that could make them more susceptible to severe cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

And many large families live together in one home, creating the perfect environment for the virus to spread quickly.

Even more worrying, 30 percent of Navajo members living in the tribe's territory do not have access to running water and must travel miles to wells, even as health authorities tout hand-washing as one of humanity's best weapons against the virus.

In an effort to stem the tide of a potentially devastating outbreak, local authorities have closed tourist attractions, and as of March 18, reservation access was restricted to members only.

Nez ordered a lockdown and a strict curfew between 8 pm and 5 am, though the virus has continued to spread: the reservation now counts 174 cases and seven deaths as of Wednesday -- up from just 14 cases on March 20.

With more than 20 new cases appearing each day, authorities fear the community's four small hospitals could be quickly overwhelmed.

"We haven’t nearly reached the peak of the virus — that’s what’s our health care experts are telling us," Vice President Myron Lizer said in a statement.

"So, we need to be proactive and do everything we can to prepare for the worse, but pray and hope for the best."

- No PPE-

The tribe has asked the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Arizona National Guard to help set up facilities in two towns and to help provide medical equipment.

"They had no PPE (personal protective equipment) for any of their health care providers," Arizona National Guard Colonel Timothy Pfeiffer told a local CBS station after delivering masks, gowns and gloves to a clinic in Kayenta, a small town of 5,000 people via helicopter.

The even smaller Hopi tribe, whose reservation is located totally inside the Navajo territory, also went into quarantine last week.

Native American communities are among the poorest in the US and have repeatedly pushed back against policies which they say violate their rights as the country's indigenous inhabitants, expressing anger over imposed borders and environmental concerns.

Indigenous peoples in the Americas have lived with the threat of infectious diseases for centuries, as European colonizers wiped out an estimated 95 percent of the western hemisphere's existing population, mostly through introduced contagions such as smallpox.