July 25, 2020

Oped by Sanya Bery

In May, the Navajo Nation reached the grim milestone of having the highest per-capita COVID-19 infection rate in America. Then, with 4,002 confirmed cases, the Nation averaged around 2,304 cases per 100,000 people. To put that in perspective, New York state had a rate of 1,806 cases per 100,000 and New Jersey was at 1,668.  

4,002 cases is an easy statistic to read about. It blends into the data we consume hourly. 4,002 cases is easy to say out loud, too. 4,002. But 4,002 cases is not easy to think about. It’s not easy to think about because as soon as we begin to really think about it, we must also wonder how the Navajo Nation has the highest per-capita infection rate in America, when it has one of the strictest stay-at-home orders in the world. We must question why, at a time when handwashing is a matter of life and death, one in three Navajo citizens do not have access to indoor plumbing. Then we must arrive at the fact that it is quite astonishing that we as a country are only really beginning to pay attention when the Navajo Nation has lacked running water for as long as residents can remember. The scarce water that is there contains 30 million tons of uranium mining, coal, oil, and fracking toxic waste. In other words, it is impossible to properly discuss the sky-high rates of COVID-19 in the Navajo Nation without discussing why such a disparity exists and how the way our current society functions allows it to. This question is a complicated one that is layered between years of environmental injustice and a blatant disregard for human value. 

Screen Shot 2020-07-27 at 7.34.30 PMPhoto: Valentina Blackhorse, 28, Navajo pageant nurtured political aspirations while raising her 1-year-old daughter. Then she tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The next day she was dead. She’s not just a statistic.

Sacrifice zones, one of the first things I learnt about in my introduction to environmental studies high school course, are areas that have been permanently damaged by environmental destruction and deterioration, generally due to utilization of the land for energy production or mining. What we did not learn about is that wealthier, white dominated communities are able to advocate for such harmful activities to occur far from where they reside, and yet still enjoy the energy produced via these zones. Such is reflected in the “not in my backyard” sentiment, a slogan created by upper-middle class citizens who were worried about the health and aesthetic effects of these developments. Thus, the sacrifice zones took over the backyards, front yards, and the life of low-income and minority neighborhoods. 

The Navajo Nation is surrounded by coal production, mining, and power plants that provide jobs, electricity, and running water for residents of the major cities that surround the reservation. Yet, the community itself doesn’t have access to such amenities and remains impoverished and vulnerable to extreme health risks of living in that close proximity to fossil fuel, an egregious environmental racism and injustice. Due to this heavy pollution, members of the nation’s lungs are already weakened, as they are 600 times more likely to die of tuberculosis than any other group. Such is one of the main reasons as to why the Navajo Nation has such high cases of COVID-19: because of already existing health conditions from fossil fuel related issues.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the significant costs to American communities of color, specifically black and indengious people, from pollution and the climate crisis. For the first time I can remember, the media and American citizens are paying attention to and recognizing the ugly and frightening face of environmental injustice. Doctors Without Borders sent teams into the Navajo Nation, the first time the organization was deployed within America.  The Community Organized Relief Effort, an emergency relief nonprofit organization, and The Rockefeller Foundation announced a new initiative to expand free Covid-19 testing and health services. These steps are important. Aid and attention is essential for immediate relief in reference to the pandemic, but I fear that when the media cycle eventually shifts, the aid will dry and the attention will transfer elsewhere. We cannot approach this scenario as something that requires a ‘one-time-fix.’ This is much bigger than the current pandemic. This systemic issue is so embedded into our habits that at times we do not even realize it. We do not realize that by supporting the fossil fuel industry we are justifying the destruction of our planet and our people.

Hop Hopkins, the director of strategic partnerships for the Sierra Club, notes that “you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people.” It’s an excellent way of summing up the true horrors behind our current mentality. Each time a sacrifice zone is created, we are also sacrificing the people that inhabit those zones. We are convincing ourselves, these neighborhoods, and the world that our reliance on a dwindling energy source is more important than the lives of these people. 

Such a lifestyle is what defined us before the COVID-19 pandemic. A lifestyle that functions by sacrificing vulnerable populations. When we yearn for a return to normalcy, this is what the privileged majority refers to. The truth is, no profit is larger and more essential than a human life. The truth is that even if such a ‘normal’ is possible again it must be avoided at all costs. 

We are in a climate crisis and a pandemic. 4,002 confirmed cases. We cannot keep pretending like our actions do not have consequences. 4,002 confirmed cases. We cannot keep believing that our previous normal is what we should strive for. We must reject the oil and gas industry and turn our time, money, and energy into the ever-promising renewable sector. This is a long overdue transition. We must build back better.