As of Sunday, COVID-19 had taken 434 lives on the Navajo Nation, which has an on-reservation population of about 174,000. This translates to a higher per capita rate than any U.S. state. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which passed in March, has so far resulted in $714 million going to the Navajo Nation.
The disbursement of the bulk of the funds was delayed by the federal government by nearly two months, and more recently a debate within the Navajo Nation government over how to spend the money has led to additional delays with presidential vetoes and stalemates within the Navajo Nation Council.
But the clock is ticking — the tribe must decide how to spend the CARES Act money by December 31 under current rules. The task is daunting on the 27,000-square-mile reservation that stretches across northeastern Arizona and into New Mexico and Utah. Delivering drinking water, building adequate housing and getting residents online would take more money than the government has made available and more time than they have allotted.
Here’s what’s been approved: $62 million for special duty pay; personal protective equipment for frontline workers; to disinfect Navajo facilities; food, water, and basic necessities; computer hardware and software for government offices; bathroom additions and upgrades for Navajo residents; dollars for ’638 health facilities and dollars toward improvements of financial system to process fund expenditures.
Under the Treasury Department guidelines, the money can’t be spent on items already budgeted, back-filling lost revenue or per-capita payments. Tribes nationwide are lobbying their congressional delegation to extend the spending deadline and allow for more flexibility. They must meet strict federal guidelines on the spending or risk having to send the money back.