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COVID-19 'Shining Light On Lack Of Infrastructure' In Navajo Nation

Coronavirus shining light on lack of public health infrastructure, according to Dr. Donald Warne, director of the Indians Into Medicine (INMED) program in North Dakota and member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. "American Indians are dying of neglect."
University of Washington School of Public Health
Dr. Donald Warne said "what we're seeing with COVID-19, it really is shining a light on the lack of public health infrastructure, and social determinants of health and tribal populations."

“I'm sure all of you have seen data from Navajo Nation and they have among the highest rates of infection nationally, and among the highest rates of death as well," said Dr. Donald Warne, director of the Indians Into Medicine (INMED) program in North Dakota and member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. Warne is also one of the 0.3% of physicians in the United States who are Native American. He said there are numerous reasons why the sovereign nations are being hit so hard by the coronavirus, but most stem from a lack of infrastructure.

“We're seeing a lot of challenges through COVID. But really, what it's doing is shining a bright light, the lack of public health infrastructure. Without adequate infrastructure, it's hard to develop good solutions. We need resources," he said. "American Indians are dying of neglect. We haven't had adequate attention placed on our circumstances, and not adequate resources to address the challenges.”

For example, about 30% of the population in Navajo Nation doesn’t have access to running water, and about as many don’t have electricity in their homes. 

As of Thursday, there were 251 cases and four deaths due to the virus on the Utah sliver of Navajo Nation alone, according to Dustin Jansen, the executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs.

“They are a rural area, and rural areas a lot more social sometimes. And just getting the word out to everyone to be able to self-quarantine and the importance of that can be difficult," Jansen said in a press conference on Thursday. "The infrastructure on a lot of reservations isn't where it's at in most of the state. The access to internet, access to good roads, access to clean water, all those things play an important part in in that question.”

Warne said other health factors that have lead to the overwhelming case load and morbidity rate amongst tribal nations are higher rates of type II diabetes and tobacco use, leaving the population vulnerable to the coronavirus. Generational housing is also prevalent in many of the country’s tribes, with can make social distancing and avoiding groups difficult.