COVID-19 Ravages the Navajo Nation

TUESDAY, June 9, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- The U.S. center hardest hit by COVID-19 isn't headline-grabbing New York City; it's the Navajo Nation in the American southwest.

About the size of West Virginia and situated on 27,000 square miles of land spread across Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, Navajo Nation is home to approximately 175,000 people.

It's also home to a coronavirus infection rate of more than 3.4% and more than 6,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the Navajo Nation Department of Health.

By comparison, New York state has an infection rate of 1.9%.

"This virus didn't originate on the Navajo Nation," said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez. "But we got hit pretty hard."

How did this happen?

One big issue is a lack of infrastructure that was a problem long before the new coronavirus appeared, said Dr. Sriram Shamasunder, an associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. He is also the co-founder of UCSF's Health, Equity, Action, Leadership (HEAL) Initiative, which is partnering with the Navajo Nation to improve conditions.

Shamasunder said many Navajo Nation residents lack basic amenities that most Americans take for granted.

"I would say that one-third of the population doesn't have electricity or running water," he said, and "that means that while 'shelter-in-place' may for us be an inconvenience, for many Native Americans it's an impossibility. If you don't have a refrigerator to store food, or water to drink, then you're not going to be able to just stay at home."

Then there's hunger. A 2016 "Hunger Report" issued by the Bread for the World Institute noted that grocery stores, convenience stores and fresh produce are either hard to find or unaffordable for many Navajo Nation residents, 44% of whom live below the poverty line. As a result, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has classified all of the Navajo Nation a "food desert."

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