Bearing Witness to Resilience
Reflections from working on Navajo Nation during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Written by Robin Tittle
As I return from 2 weeks working in a hospital at the edge of Navajo Nation, a few reflections keep pushing their way to the surface. Up until now, I’ve tried to keep my trip relatively quiet. Not because it hasn’t been an incredibly meaningful and moving experience but because I know, inevitably, the narrative gets turned into a savior frame. The story becomes about me and how good and kind and selfless I must be to come to a poor and needy community to treat patients. The reality couldn’t be more different, and it feels important to set the record straight.
There has been a lot of media on the COVID-19 pandemic in Navajo Nation. It has reported that Navajo Nation has more per capita infections than any other place in the United States. It has reported on the chronically underfunded IHS health system and the ways in which decades of limited resources have left an understaffed workforce to treat patients in outdated facilities. Some have even reported on the historical injustice and structural racism that has left Navajo communities especially vulnerable to this pandemic. All of this is true but it’s only part of the story.
What has been reported too infrequently is the tremendous assets of the community and the healthcare providers here. Against damaging narratives of a helpless people ruined by legacies of oppression, I have witnessed incredible local leadership from Navajo Nation President Nez and his administration who implemented one of the most aggressive shelter in place policies in the country and has supported widespread testing, such that 14% of the Navajo population has now been tested for the virus. There is leadership at the hospital-level, shifting entire groups of employees into new roles and stretching into new skill sets. There is leadership that has sought to combat this novel pandemic while also staying rooted in the values of the community they serve. I have seen ingenuity spring up in so many ways — a truly collaborative response to homeless and vulnerable community members, providing not only hotel rooms for them to safely stay while recovering from the virus but whole teams of physicians, nurses, social workers and volunteers to care for them holistically as individuals. I have witnessed the Diné community coming together to care for one another, providing food, water, and other essentials to support community members across tremendous distance and logistical hurdles.
I have had the privilege of working alongside providers who have chosen for years to humbly serve as frontline health workers for the Navajo people and who continue to do so during this pandemic and will continue to do so long after it is gone. I have had the privilege to hear Diné healthcare providers speak of the profound sadness of this moment but also their belief that this virus too is part of nature. I have heard their faith that the Navajo people will move through this challenging time just as they have moved through so many in the past. And I know they are right.
There is deep sadness and deep pain in this moment — husbands and wives in different hospitals, each fighting their own battles with the virus while also trying desperately to get news of one another; families who have lost multiple loved ones, from young people just starting their lives to elders who are the spiritual centers of their households. But there is also so much beauty in the strength and resiliency of the Navajo community and their allies who have been here long before this virus. Yes, we need commitment to long-term solutions — solutions that seek to recognize and start to right the wrongs of decades (or centuries) of appropriation, institutionalized racism, and chronic underfunding of essential services. As we do that, though, I hope we can also recognize that despite all odds, we are seeing examples of what leadership can and must be in this moment, what creativity and commitment can make possible, and what community solidarity looks like. These are lessons that we desperately need to learn across the country, and Navajo Nation’s COVID response has much to teach us.
And equally crucially, as we commit to standing in solidarity beyond this moment in time and pledge to walk alongside this community on the much longer journey to health equity — let’s remember that the leadership, the ingenuity, the resiliency is already present in the Navajo people — let us commit to following their footsteps into the future they dream for themselves.
Robin Tittle is a founding member of the UCSF HEAL Initiative and continues to serve as HEAL’s Director of Curriculum.