Decades of severe drought and climate change are drying the lifeblood of Navajo ranchers.
United States President Joe Biden has issued a disaster declaration for the Navajo Nation over the coronavirus pandemic, a move that unlocks much-needed federal financial assistance and other support for the Indigenous community.
In a news release on Wednesday, the White House said the approval authorises the distribution of funds under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to support the Nation’s efforts to combat COVID-19.
“Federal funding is available to the Navajo Nation and certain private nonprofit organizations for emergency protective measures, including direct Federal assistance, for the entire Tribe impacted by COVID-19,” the White House said.
Navajo Nation leaders welcomed the move, which they said had been “long-awaited”.
“Our administration has advocated for the declaration for quite some time. This is a great step forward and now we have to step up our efforts and coordinate with FEMA,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement.
The Navajo Nation, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, and counts a population of more than 170,000 residents within that area, has been one of the hardest-hit communities in the southwestern US during the pandemic.
According to the latest figures, there are currently more than 28,000 active cases of COVID-19 on Navajo Nation territory, and 1,032 deaths linked to the coronavirus have been reported to date.
Navajo Nation leaders have imposed a daily curfew from 9pm to 5am in an effort to stem the potential spread of infections.
In its statement, the Navajo Nation said it expects FEMA to help with COVID-19 vaccine distribution and provide medical equipment as well as medical personnel to administer vaccine doses and treat COVID-19 patients.
The Navajo Nation began receiving vaccination shipments in December amid an alarming rise in cases. On December 3, the Nation sent a formal request to former President Donald Trump to issue a disaster declaration and provide federal assistance to the community.
“We have been in a state of emergency since the pandemic began here on the Navajo Nation, but that has now elevated to a major health care crisis,” Nez, the president, said in a statement at that time.
How much funding the nation had requested – and how much FEMA will now dispense after Biden’s order – was not specified on Wednesday.
“Navajo leaders have worked diligently to safeguard elders and other tribal members while working closely with partners to strengthen testing, deliver PPE and life-sustaining supplies, ensure medical treatment and now support vaccination efforts,” Robert J Fenton, FEMA’s acting administrator, said in the statement.
“The President’s major disaster declaration acknowledges the Navajo Nation’s ongoing needs, efforts and the strong nation-nation relationship we share,” he said.