Rural Matters — Coronavirus and the Navajo Nation

Heather Kovich: The national media reports on the severity of the Navajo Nation outbreak and hits the usual notes of poverty, isolation, and lack of running water. These reports are factually accurate: the virus penetrated towns that utility companies have never managed to reach. But I yearn for stories that mention the diversity of talent and experience here, the resourcefulness. Outsiders seem surprised that the rural landscape hasn’t protected us. I don’t think the Navajo are surprised. From smallpox to H1N1 influenza, infections from the outside have always found their way here. It’s just infrastructure that hasn’t. It’s not news.

[…] In our small hospital, the leadership and Incident Command are not faceless administrators. The people making the Covid policies are the same people donning PPE and taking care of patients. They order hand sanitizer for the hospital and two liters of oxygen for their patients. They are exhausted. Our bureaucracy has never been nimble. It still takes far too many signatures to purchase a pallet of nitrile gloves, but we are masters of the work-around, the get-it-done approach. It’s the only way to handle an epidemic in which everything changes by the hour.

This practicality is inspired by our community. Like our patients, we manage each day with the resources we have. Many of our staff — secretaries, doctors, therapists, nurses — are locals. Some balance their day jobs with ranching, farming, and making art. On my first day in the Fever Clinic, my colleagues show me how to doff my gown into the correct garbage bin, and in between patients they discuss how to call a coyote (there’s a device) and how to get a stubborn bull away from your house (a bucket of food). Many people know how to fix cars, cut hair, and buy a month’s worth of shelf-stable groceries on a budget. So it’s no surprise that my boss, the best doctor I know, offers to draw blood if we’re short-staffed. She’s reorganized our entire outpatient clinic and is setting up emergency housing, but apparently she also used to be a phlebotomist. More here.

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