Covering Coronavirus: Indian Country


NAVAJO POLICE OFFICER: Wash your hands. Safe cleaning. And avoid contact with those who are sick. If you need medical attention, please contact your local medical facility before arriving. Again, this is the Navajo Police Department. To help contain the spread of the COVID-19, please stay at home. Shelter in place. 


RANEY ARONSON: This type of message has become a regular part of patrol for the Navajo Police Department. That's because the Navajo Nation is seeing a higher rate of confirmed COVID-19 cases than most states.


In Native American communities across the country, there are reports of shortages of necessary medical supplies and critical care beds for patients.  


What’s more, tribes say their requests for federal help are being ignored.


ANTONIA GONZALES: It’s hard to open a daily email and see that cases on the Navajo Nation jumped by, you know, 20, 30 overnight.


ARONSON: That’s New Mexico PBS reporter Antonia Gonzales.


Antonia has been covering the coronavirus outbreak in Native American communities, and is a member of the Navajo Nation herself. She joined me from New Mexico.


FRONTLINE is partnering with her as part of our Local Journalism Initiative. 


I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE and this is the 

FRONTLINE Dispatch. 


FUNDER: The FRONTLINE Dispatch is made possible by the Abrams Foundation, committed to excellence in journalism, and by the WGBH catalyst fund. Support for The FRONTLINE Dispatch also comes from the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center. Early detection is key to catching and treating many cancers. You can learn more about the innovative programs at mass-general-dot-org-slash-cancer. Mass General Cancer Center: Everyday amazing. 



ARONSON: Hey, Antonia, where are you calling us from?


GONZALES: I'm in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in my house safely being, you know, social distancing.


ARONSON: Sheltering in? 


GONZALES: Yes, I haven't really been anywhere. You know, if we need some essential supplies, just one person goes out and we're wearing our mask and gloves and keeping a safe distance from other people.


ARONSON: Right, we’re all in that situation it’s kind of amazing. I'm also calling you from my basement. So here we are talking to each other. 




ARONSON: So listen, Antonia, I know that there was a call last month where the Indian Health Service has shared some alarming information about shortages of medical supplies, and in particular, its I.C.U. and hospital bed capacity. And one official even called it reportedly a ‘shoestring operation.’ Can you take us back to that call and help us understand where things stood as the virus spread?

GONZALES: Yeah, a lot of our tribal nations already deal with critically underfunded Indian Health Service programs. Some don't have hospitals, they have to drive, you know, a lot of tribal communities, maybe they live in rural areas, so they don't have that quick access to a hospital. Maybe some tribes have some tribal clinics, but they still have, you know, these limited services when it comes to health care. And then on top of that, a lot of Native people are facing some chronic illnesses such as diabetes, you know, heart disease and some other illnesses that are making them as we hear from health professionals across the country make people more you know, susceptible to the diseases.


ARONSON: Right. So I mean, I was hoping you could help us understand the I.H.S. in general., Why is it so short on supplies? I mean, this is a systemic issue.

GONZALES: Yeah, so the Indian Health Service, the federal government has a treaty and trust responsibility to tribes across the country to provide health care. And it's just been a longstanding issue going back years and years and years, having this appropriation and coming to the tribal nations from the Indian Health Service to provide all types of medical care for people. And when we look at some of the different tribes, for example, the Navajo Nation, which is hit hard. It's one of the largest tribes in the United States has 27,000 square miles and for the people that live there, there are about 12 Indian Health Service facilities to serve the Navajo people, which includes some in the border towns, and so people often have to try travel miles just to be seen, but what we have seen is a lot of tribes also turning to telemedicine to help address not only COVID but other health concerns people are dealing with during this time.


ARONSON: We've seen, you know, even well resourced hospitals, you know, low on PPE, low on ventilators. Can you paint a picture for me of what's going on inside the I.H.S. hospitals and how they're doing for supplies?

GONZALES: So, recent press releases from the Indian Health Service has indicated that they've really been working on getting funding and needs to different tribal nations, including looking at some of those much needed medical supplies as far as some of the tribes including the Navajo Nation, other people have reached out we have reported on Tuesday, the Navajo health officials are saying that they've received test kits from a university in Arizona. they've received N95 masks from various different business organizations and what they're saying their need is now as for medical gowns, and then also a drive for masks for the public. One of the recent orders from, you know, the Navajo Nation tribal government has been for people when they do go out in public to wear masks.


ARONSON: Antonia, I know you're based in New Mexico. Can you talk to us about the first reporting that you did on this and what was your focus?


GONZALES: So I think when it first started coming out, we started talking to different tribal leaders in different areas of the country about what their plans were, before any of the cases came. And then when cases started popping up here in there, talking to the tribes about what they were doing. In New Mexico we have not only do we have the Navajo Nation, but we also have Apache tribes and we have 19 Pueblo communities here in the state of New Mexico and some of the first thing that Pueblos here were doing was closing off the reservation to visitors, and to help slow that spread of COVID-19. So we saw a lot of tourism destinations closing, every single casino in New Mexico, according to the governor, is closed. And so those are some of the actions that tribes were taking to address this. And, you know, looking forward also as tribes are also now trying to figure out the economics of it and how that's going to impact them right now in the short term, but also long term and also individuals because New Mexico is a state that relies heavily on tourism, and it goes with along with our Pueblo communities and the Navajo Nation and the Apache tribes on their individual artists that rely on tourism dollars. And we're hearing tribal leaders tell some of the community members to keep doing their art and that you know that they're trying their best to, to find different economic means for their citizens.


ARONSON: Talk to me a little bit about the casinos closing...and what's the economic impact? What do they feel the sort of long term economic impact will be?


GONZALES: So I think that a lot of tribes are trying to figure that out right now. There are tribes all over the country, I haven't heard of one tribe that is still operating its casino on their… likely that is happening, but we saw casinos in Oklahoma close. Like I said, here in New Mexico, the casinos closed. A lot in California, a lot of the casinos closed. And so, this is going on, you know, three weeks or more that these places have closed and for gaming tribes I think a lot of tribes do that do rely on gaming dollars, they’re trying to figure out how they can be included in stimulus plans. And so I think that I'm seeing a lot of tribal leaders and a lot of Native organizations, including the National Congress of American Indians, there's also different gaming associations that work with tribes that are looking to see how they can recover from this, including the Navajo Nation, which operates casinos in Arizona and New Mexico.


ARONSON: Let’s talk specifically about the Navajo Nation. So I know that they have one of the highest rates of infection in the country. Can you talk a bit about their experience of the pandemic so far?

GONZALES: Navajo Nation leaders, Navajo health officials, Navajo emergency responders, the tribe really took information about COVID-19 seriously from the start.



NAVAJO DEPT. OF HEALTH DR. JILL JIM: This is a new virus, it is, right now originating or reported from China. There are five cases in the United States and the one is in Maricopa County. There is no vaccine at this point. If there were to be a vaccine, it would probably take a couple more months based on news from C.D.C.

GONZALES: Then into February, March, tribal leaders really took this issue seriously. And they started preparing as much as they could for COVID-19, including trying to find different areas where they could set up field hospitals, which they have found places now in both Arizona and New Mexico. They started emergency orders right away with the sheltering in place. They started putting some of the information in both the Navajo and English languages, doing radio ads and putting stuff on billboards. So they really took the approach of taking this seriously. And then with testing, and more and more testing being made available, we saw that the numbers just kept increasing and as of Tuesday, the Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez was talking about more rapid tests coming to the tribe. And so they're just, you know, seeing how this may impact with the increase in numbers.

ARONSON: Right. So, why do you… do you believe that the numbers are so much higher?

GONZALES: Yeah. So what the tribal officials and the Navajo health departments are saying is that because they have increased the testing that that's why they're seeing a lot of these increased numbers. And so they're really still urging people to stay at home and follow the emergency orders. The Navajo Health Department did say that they're seeing flattening of the curve and so tribal officials are keeping these emergency orders in place. They've beefed up some of them, including 57 hour weekend curfews, which start on Easter, and police are out. And they're issuing citations for those who are not following the orders. They also are continuing the shelter in place. But also ,what they're doing is asking people when they go out in public to wear the masks. And so those are just some of the things that they want to see. And their government is closed, and they're continuing to close the government through May 17.


ARONSON: I know that you spoke with President Nez. What does he say about the federal government response and how helpful has the federal government then at this point with the Navajo Nation?


GONZALES: We've heard from President Nez say multiple times in his town halls and on press calls that the federal government has really lacked in responsibility to getting the funding and working with the tribes, especially when it comes to getting immediate funding needs to the Navajo Nation.



PRESIDENT JONATHAN NEZ: Federal agencies are using the same process that has been used every year, such as forcing us to apply via grant applications, which places on us hefty reporting requirements jumping through all these hoops. All the tribal leaders have been advocating for direct funding to tribal governments for very, very long time. And this is an emergency. This statistic needs to be given is that of all the cases throughout the Indian Health Service 57%, the last number I got, 57% of the total within I.H.S. are from the Navajo Nation.


GONZALES: You know, I've been covering Indian country, Indian Country issues, tribes for more than 15 years now. And it's the same story it seems like when it comes to working with the federal government and honoring treaty and trust responsibilities, and really regardless who's in office, but you see that tribal leaders advocates, heads of native national native organizations, they continually advocate for their people. They're there, you know, before COVID. And I'm sure after COVID.


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ARONSON: So I know, Antonia, that you're a member of the Navajo Nation yourself, what has it been like for you to cover this not just as a journalist, but someone who's also part of this community?


GONZALES: I think that, you know, when I step back and, you know, take it in, I think it's like, what I'm hearing from a lot of journalists across the country, is just how overwhelmed it can feel at times, and especially in covering something like this. When it comes so close to people you care about, your tribe, your family, people, you know, that are dealing with this and being hard hit that, you know, it's hard. It's hard to open a daily email and see that cases on the Navajo Nation jump by, you know, 20, 30 overnight. So, I think that that's a toll. And just knowing that, you know, what conditions are like, and, you know, knowing how these communities are being impacted, and also just, I think the social and mental toll that it's having on people as well. But then again, I'm also grateful that you know, my family and my friends and people that I care about and love are safe and are taking this serious.


ARONSON: I wanted to ask you just looking back at the long history of Native tribes dealing with crises in general, what do you see as a bright spot? Talk to me now about what gives you hope and optimism around this?


GONZALES: I think looking at our younger generations, young people, you know, are some of the smartest people in some of our tribal communities when it comes to a variety of levels and we see that from youth across the country.




Hello, my name is Gabriel. I am from Los Angeles. I'm going to be dancing for the people from the coronavirus...


We're dancing for elders healing, praying and bravery….


I'm a Haliwa Saponi and I live in Hollister, North Carolina. I come to you all today as your 2019-2020 Miss Haliwa Saponi Princess and I will be promoting my plan for reconnecting with our elders...


[greeting in Native language] Hello everyone, my name is Mike. Hope everyone is well and staying safe out here to all my essential workers, do what you got to do, come back home. I gotta do the exact same thing. Come home safe. All right. And to those stuck at home, you know, this will be over soon. Appreciate the times do you have together because you may not get this time back. You know, we'll resume normalcy pretty soon. I hope, anywho, thank you, goodbye for now.




GONZALES: We see different youth groups and young people who have, you know, not only taken to social media to encourage their peers and to share their culture and language and tradition, but we also see different groups that are helping in any way they can, whether it's making face masks, or we've reported on some stories of volunteers in Rapid City, South Dakota, making care packages for elders and leaving them at the doors. Also volunteers in Rapid City who harvest traditional herbs for smudging and for teas, taking those two elders in the community during this time to provide some sort of comfort...So I think that the resilience, history of indigenous peoples here across the United States and around the world is the resilience continues to shine, even in the hardest of times.


ARONSON: Antonia, we're so grateful for the partnership with New Mexico PBS and with you and we'll be talking to you soon. Thanks again.


GONZALES: Thank you.


ARONSON: FRONTLINE is supporting New Mexico PBS’s coronavirus coverage as part of our Local Journalism Initiative. You can find Antonia's reporting and more of our pandemic coverage online FRONTLINE dot org. 


This podcast was produced by James Edwards and Max Green. 


Our production assistant is Lucie Sullivan.


Katherine Griwert is our editorial coordinating producer. 


Pam Johnston is FRONTLINE’s senior director of strategy and audience.


Lauren Ezell is senior story editor. 


Sarah Childress is our senior editor. 


Phil Bennett is our special projects editor.


Andrew Metz is our managing editor.


I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE. 


Music by Stellwagen Symphonette. 


The FRONTLINE Dispatch is produced at WGBH and powered by PRX. 

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