By Nellie Peyton
WASHINGTON – Ellen DeGeneres and actor Mark Ruffalo were among celebrities who issued a call on Wednesday for health care volunteers to help the Navajo living on the largest Native American reservation in the United States to fight the coronavirus.
The Navajo Nation is one of the hardest hit parts of the United States by the coronavirus, suffering almost twice the national per capita rate of deaths, according to data from the Navajo Nation Department of Health.
About 175,000 people live on the reservation, which spans the states of New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, and more than 2,500 have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, with about 75 deaths.
DeGeneres and Ruffalo appeared with other famous faces, including actors Andy Garcia and Debra Messing, in a video released by grassroots campaign “Protect the Sacred”, asking for help to boost health worker numbers on the reservation.
“We see your resilience,” said DeGeneres in the video.
Navajo tribe member Allie Young, the director of the campaign, said she hopes it will bring encouragement to the Navajo people while raising awareness of their plight.
“Right now we’re kind of facing this on our own … We have been battling invisibility for so long,” Young told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The new coronavirus has torn through the reservation in part because about 30% of the population has no running water, said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.
Navajo authorities have set curfews, asked the federal government for field hospitals, and transported COVID-19 patients to neighboring states given a lack of ventilators.
“You’ve got the CDC (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and other professionals saying wash your hands with soap and water … some of our citizens don’t have the luxury to turn on a faucet,” Nez told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs, the federal government agency which provides basic services to Native Americans, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Navajo Nation is set to receive over $600 million in federal funding from the Coronavirus Relief Fund, announced this week, as President Donald Trump met Navajo leaders in Arizona.
Nez said Navajo people tend to live in multi-generational homes and hold large social gatherings, which helped the virus spread quickly.
The tribe, who refer to themselves as the Diné, also has high rates of diabetes, heart disease and obesity – underlying conditions that increase risk of complications from COVID-19, according to the CDC.
“This is a call-out for healthcare professionals to come and help relieve our warriors that are on the front lines. They’re burning out,” said Nez.