Arizona News – CH’ÍHOOTSOOÍ, DINÉTAH, WINDOW ROCK, NAVAJO NATION – On Wednesday, November 16, the White House Summit on COVID-19 Equity & What Works Showcase featured organizations that provided direct relief during the pandemic and the methods they used to achieve equity.
White House COVID Coordinator Ashish K. Jha said that equity had to be an organizing principle in combating COVID.
“The work of equity begins with understanding the people we serve. This work happens in the trenches. Equity starts and ends on the front lines,” Jha said. “So many of you led this work.”
The intent was to highlight methods of achieving equity in American Indian, Alaska Native, and Hispanic communities, yet many of these communities still face governmental distrust due to a history of colonial oppression and immigration injustice. These factors widened the gap of equity extended to marginalized communities during the pandemic.
The Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund’s Executive Director Ethel Branch represented the organization at the Showcase and said, “When COVID hit the Navajo Nation in March 2020, we saw a community disproportionately vulnerable to the virus with high incidences of underlying conditions due to our Nation being a national sacrifice area for over a century.”
During the Cold War era, over 30 million tons of uranium were extracted from the Nation at over 1,000 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation that caused its people to experience disproportionate rates of cancer.
The Navajo Generating Station, once the largest coal-fire burning power plant in the Western United States, long operated on the Navajo Nation and fueled the growth and development of the entire southwestern United States. Meanwhile the Navajo families that lived adjacent to the mine, power plant, and transmission lines exporting that energy to non-Native communities failed to benefit from the luxury of having electrical power in their own homes even while directly absorbing the negative externalities of the pollution from the coal mine and power plant, such as related upper respiratory illnesses.
“One-third of my people still don’t have electricity,” Branch said. “Additionally, one-third of Navajo and Hopi people living on the two nations lack piped water. The pandemic made frequent handwashing essential to survival in the face of COVID, and made this inaccessible luxury for water hauling families a matter of life or death.”
These disparities relating to health care, housing, infrastructure, and social needs address how inequity contributes to creating disproportionally vulnerable communities.
Senior Advisor to the White House Office of COVID Response, Dr. Cameron Webb, said that equity as it relates to COVID-19 is the idea that all individuals in all communities have access to the resources and tools they need not just to survive but to thrive despite the pandemic.
“It means we’re acknowledging the historical and contemporary dynamics that drive inequities in health and that we’re working as part of a whole society effort to achieve and actively design policies and interventions that can overcome those factors in the midst of this pandemic,” Webb said.
In many Native American and minority communities, the pandemic exacerbated these systemic obstacles.
During the Summit, Abigail Echo Hawk, Director of the Urban Indian Health Institute and Executive Vice President of the Seattle Indian Health Board, participated in a panel titled ‘It All Starts With Trust.’
Echo Hawk said, “In order to reach equity, you have to walk through truth.”
To that end, she noted, “There is still work to be done, there is still incredible mistrust and ongoing structural racism that continues to inhibit our ability to serve our people well. We still have a chronic underfunding of the IHS. We still need to make sure that policies from the federal to the local level incorporate the needs of Indigenous communities. You all (federal government) need to be there all the time, not to try to lead us but to recognize we have the strengths, the resources, and the assets to do what is right for our people by our people. We, as Indigenous people, are not a problem to solve. Yet, Western based equity often sees us as that.”
Senior Policy Advisor to the White House Office of COVID Response Stefanie Friedhoff said that studies have shown that trust is a central tenet of resilience in a pandemic and is key to achieving equity.
“Trust is also easily lost, especially when uncertainty is high and when misinformation is rampant,” she said. “Trust is easily lost in a crisis when the inequities that are inherent in our system start creating disproportionate outcomes for the most vulnerable. Building trust is really hard work.”
This is where the role of community organizers is critically important.
“We need to address the breakdown in trust. Rebuilding trust between public health institutions, government and the people is important. You instill this trust,” Jha said. “Equity is not just a part of a mission statement, it’s a value, a priority. Your work is what has helped us create equity.”