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Virtual town hall to address COVID-19 in Indian Country

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

COVID-19 is affecting Native Americans in disproportionate ways.

Native Americans make up almost 37% of all the positive COVID-19 cases in the state. By comparison, the Native population in New Mexico is 11% overall.

The Indian Affairs Department, other state departments and the Navajo Nation have teamed up with New Mexico PBS for a virtual town hall to address COVID-19 concerns.

The broadcast will air at 6 p.m. Sunday, April 19, on New Mexico PBS and live on its Facebook page. Acoma Pueblo member Conroy Chino will moderate.

Those expected to participate are Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, state secretaries, and Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and J. Michael Chavarria, chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors.

Keegan King, policy and communications bureau chief for the Indian Affairs Department, said one reason for having the virtual event is so that tribal communities aren’t forgotten.

He said COVID-19 is bringing to light a lot of the inequities that still exist in tribal communities.

There is also real concern about the number of Native Americans who have died from the disease compared with the general population. The reasons for the disparity are many, including underlying health risks, shortages in funding for Indian Health Service and even the lack of running water in many homes in Indian Country, which makes the basic preventative practice of hand washing difficult.

King said internet access is typically seen as an amenity and at times during a public health emergency, it’s needed for the health and welfare of people.

“We need to have broadband access as a key component,” King said.

“A lot of the vital information hasn’t been there for the everyday working man,” King said. “We will be able to talk about food and water deliveries.”

King said the state has been working well with tribal leadership. In turn the leadership communicates with their citizens.

“With Zuni Pueblo, they are using their radio station to communicate this information,” King said. “With communities with no radio, they’ve placed flyers on doors. In some places canvassing had been done.”

Teaming up with New Mexico PBS gives the message a bigger reach.

King said most Native Americans access information through mobile devices and rely on using a signal in the smartphone to use social media.

The town hall is the latest in a string of developments for tribal communities.

“The state has delivered over 10,000 boxes of food this week,” King said. “We’ve continued to deliver water tankers to many tribal communities. Our state agencies are working with National Guard and emergency operations to get help in.”

King said the conversation needs to continue with tribal communities included.

“Every day, there are new needs and the crisis shifts,” King said. “We can’t lose this urgency and have to continue to build momentum in making changes for tribal communities.”

Franz Joachim, NMPBS general manager and CEO, said the station worked quickly to make the town hall available to a wider audience.

NMPBS covers the majority of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico.

“We know how much of a challenge it is in the Navajo Nation,” Joachim said. “These are very challenging times and going virtual is one of the ways we are working with these conditions. The broadcast will give more reach to get the pertinent information to New Mexicans.”

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