by Bethany Holland, Humanitarian Programs Manager
In April and May of this year, the Navajo Nation had both the highest per-capita infection rate of COVID-19 and the highest COVID-19 related hospitalization rate in the U.S.
Coronavirus prevention is dependent on hand washing and similar hygiene-centered tasks. So, what is a community expected to do when 30 to 40 percent of homes are without running water or electricity?
The inequitable access to running water is compounded by high rates of chronic health issues, an unemployment rate about three times higher than the U.S. average, and a lack of access to food. According to Partners in Health, the average resident drives three hours to the nearest grocery store, where finding fresh, affordable produce is often a toss-up.
Additionally, multiple generations of a Navajo family often share a home, compounding the risk of spreading the virus. Individuals unable to travel to community wells to collect water, such as the elderly, disabled, and ill, depend on relatives and friends to deliver storage containers of water when their supply runs low. This population is considered the most vulnerable to COVID-19, as well, but there is no backup plan for receiving their water supply.
Despite ongoing challenges, the Navajo Nation has managed to contain the spread of COVID-19 through the implementation of safety measures including nightly curfews, social distancing, and face covering mandates.
In the first months of the pandemic, Navajo Nation was testing citizens at a higher rate per capita than any U.S. state. However, these measures are not sustainable.
Members of the Navajo Nation have called for solutions that move beyond the temporary and invest in the strength and resilience of the community. Airlink partner Waves For Water is helping members of the Navajo Nation do just that.
The organization responded to the community’s calls for assistance with a pilot clean-water program in the town of Shiprock, New Mexico, which has been significantly impacted by COVID-19. Through educating communities on safe water and hygiene practices and installing water filtration systems, volunteers with the organization are creating ways for the Navajo Nation to invest in the future.
Once installed, one filtration system has the capacity to provide clean water for ten years if it’s properly maintained; Waves for Water volunteers teach families how to do that, too.
Projects such as this are necessary for long-term health and hygiene practices, especially during an ongoing pandemic. Navajo Nation is nearly 27,500 square miles, with 12 healthcare facilities servicing its 350,000 residents.
By donating filtration systems and increasing access to clean water, the strain on the healthcare system decreases and medical providers are able to regain the capacity to provide treatments to critically-ill patients. Such efforts are especially important as communities around the world and here in the U.S. brace for a second wave of COVID-19 infections.
With the pilot program completed, Waves for Water is expected to return in the coming months with the help of Airlink to expand clean-water access to more towns across the Navajo Nation.