'The grief is so unbearable': Virus takes toll on Navajo

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A hand-painted sign points the way to the Chilchinbeto Church of the Nazarene in Chilchinbeto, Ariz., on the Navajo reservation at sunrise on Sunday, April 19, 2020. The Navajo reservation has some of the highest rates of coronavirus in the country. If Navajos are susceptible to the virus' spread in part because they are so closely knit, that's also how many believe they will beat it. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

TUBA CITY, Ariz. – The virus arrived on the reservation in early March, when late winter winds were still blowing off the mesas and temperatures at dawn were often barely above freezing.

It was carried in from Tucson, doctors say, by a man who had been to a basketball tournament and then made the long drive back to a small town in the Navajo highlands. There, believers were preparing to gather in a small, metal-walled church with a battered white bell and crosses on the window.

On a dirt road at the edge of the town, a hand-painted sign with red letters points the way: “Chilchinbeto Church of the Nazarene.”

From that church, COVID-19 took hold on the Navajo Nation, hopscotching across families and clans and churches and towns, and leaving the reservation with some of the highest infection rates in the U.S.

Crowding, tradition and medical disparities have tangled together on the tribe's land — an area nearly three times the size of Massachusetts — creating a virological catastrophe.

And the most basic measures to fight the virus’ spread — handwashing and isolation — can be difficult.

One-third of the homes across the vast, dry reservation don’t have running water, forcing families to haul it in. Many in close-knit Navajo communities live in crowded houses where self-quarantine is impossible, and many must drive hours to the nearest grocery store. To most Navajo, isolating an infected person from their family is deeply alien.

The Chilchinbeto meeting, which brought people together from across the region, included everything from discussions of church finances to a joyful meal of roast beef. They prayed for strength in the face of the new virus, which seemed like a distant worry.