The COVID-19 pandemic has once again thrust the health vulnerability of Indian Country into the light. In less than six months, the Navajo Nation held the top spot of most positive cases per capita in the United States. We witnessed relief fund after relief fund pop-up and millions of dollars pour into the Navajo Nation and beyond. The level of human capital invested in helping our relatives alone was impressive, to say the least. Indian Country found itself placing tens of millions of dollars into treating and protecting Native people, particularly the “high risk” and most vulnerable. Significant efforts, including curfews, travel bans, mask-wearing and lock-down orders were put in place to “prevent” the spread and growth of this pandemic.
For the most part, these orders and policies are being followed and slowly we are seeing the numbers slow down. We are witnessing entire norm changes in just a few short months. For example, wearing masks everywhere, social distancing, temperature checks at grocery stores, and no handshakes or hugs, to name a few. It has been extraordinary to experience first-hand what has taken place since March 2020 and to see how quickly people are adapting- be it uncomfortably or begrudgingly. On July 21st, the Navajo Nation had 8,617 positive cases, 6,369 recoveries and 442 confirmed deaths. The numbers are better, but the health of the Navajo Nation remains tenuous at best.
Meanwhile, we have to ask- “Why are Native peoples so vulnerable to this pandemic?” Of course, there are many factors that contribute to this answer. One contributor, unfortunately, continues to be UNHEALTHY LIFESTYLE CHOICES. The fact remains, a significant portion of the vulnerable and high-risk individuals in Indian Country are saddled with PREVENTABLE diseases: obesity, type-2 diabetes, heart disease, cardiovascular diseases, hypertension and even some cancers. While we can site many factors for why these preventable chronic diseases ravage our communities, one fact remains- lack of healthy opportunities and choices leading to unhealthy behaviors and lifestyle choices. Current lifestyle choices, such as poor diet, lack of physical activity, smoking, overuse of alcohol, and inadequate relief of chronic stresses are key contributors in the development and progression of preventable chronic diseases. The result is a high number of Native people now labeled “high-risk,” who are extremely vulnerable to Covid-19 and who lack the full capabilities to fight of this virus and others.
If there is a silver lining in this pandemic, it has revealed that we can make major shifts, decisions and investments to protect and help our relatives when we want to and when the will is there. How do we harness this current “will” and move ourselves further into full health prevention norms and practices? How do we normalize healthy behaviors? How do we support and invest in systemic approaches to healthy norms and lifestyles, including food, physical activity and mental and emotional respite? How do we invest in our children at a level we have invested into COVID-19? How do we create the same level of urgency for the wellbeing of our children and families as we did for the most vulnerable during COVID-19? How do we embrace the full concept of prevention and lead from a place of strength, knowledge and inspiration?
If there ever was a time to rethink, redirect and commit our resources, energy and knowledge to creating a sustainable and healthy future—now is the time.