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Navajo-Hopi Relief Effort Assists Tribal Elders And Others Vulnerable to COVID-19

Ethel Branch

An all-volunteer, Indigenous-led relief effort is underway to bring food, water and other necessities to the Navajo and Hopi nations that have been hard-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. Donations have poured in from around the world to support the effort that so far has assisted more than 850 households made up of tribal elders and others who are especially vulnerable. It’s spearheaded by former Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch who spoke with KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius.

Ryan Heinsius: What first drew your attention to the level of need among Navajo and Hopi folks during the outbreak?

Ethel Branch: I feel like I’ve always been concerned about the inequity that exists on the two reservations, and just on reservations in general. And so, when the outbreak came to Arizona I was really, really concerned about elders who live in remote areas primarily who wouldn’t have been exposed otherwise except for coming to town to go shopping. That population, our elders living in these remote areas are, in many cases, especially high risk, either because they live near one of the three power plants on or near the nation or they live near an abandoned uranium mine site. They may have had cancer because of that or they might have diabetes; there are so many of our elders who have diabetes, heart conditions. I was also worried about single parents, struggling families particularly given the high unemployment rates on Navajo and Hopi.

Credit Ethel Branch
Volunteers for the Navajo-Hopi relief effort load food and water for delivery.

RH: What are you seeing the most urgent need for at this point?

EB: In those communities where there is not running water, drinking water is a big need. And then of course we’re providing food, and many people need food. A few days ago we had over 2,500 help requests. What we’re seeing in many cases is off-reservation family members who have better access to the internet are submitting help request forms on behalf of their grandparents or parents who live here on the reservation.

RH: One term that’s popped up a lot is the idea of food deserts–the lack of grocery stores over a large expanse. How has that limited access to grocery stores exacerbated the effects of COVID-19 and the effects that it’s having on people in these remote areas?

EB: I think it makes it difficult for people to get the food that they need. People are staying close to home. Because of that you now probably have three or four times the number of shoppers going to those 13 grocery stores, whereas previously many of them were combining their grocery shopping with other off-reservation travel and shopping. But with people trying to stay home they’re all going to the same grocery stores and there’s just not enough supply. And then there are just more people in those spaces and then that’s making it more difficult to ensure social distancing. Like, if I think about my mom and her nearest on-reservation grocery store, that’s still a good hour and 15 minutes away from her. So, that’s an expense of getting there and then you don’t find what you need and then you have to expose yourself again by driving off the reservation, and then there’s the additional expense of the gas tied to that. I think it makes it very difficult.

RH: It’s been some pretty dark days for a lot of people. Has seeing your community come together like this for this effort given you a sense of hope?

EB: Absolutely, absolutely. It’s just so heartening and inspiring and invigorating to see how much people care at all levels, whether it’s the donors who are giving money and then it’s also just so amazing to work with these volunteers who are throwing themselves entirely into this effort. And for me it just feels personally rewarding to be able to do something rather than just watch this happen and feel helpless in the face of this situation.

For more information on the relief effort, see

Ryan Heinsius was named interim news director and managing editor in January 2024. He joined KNAU's newsroom as an executive producer in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Public Media Journalists Association Award winner, and a frequent contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and national newscast.
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