Chandler woman helping virus-ravaged Navajos The Chandler Arizonan

Chandler woman helping virus-ravaged Navajos

Chandler woman helping virus-ravaged Navajos

By Kevin Reagan
Arizonan Staff Writer

A Chandler woman hopes to distribute mobile handwashing stations to residents living on the pandemic-ravaged Navajo Nation who don’t have access to running water.

Yolanda Tso of Chandler is hoping to curb the virus’s spread by delivering water and handwashing stations to the tribe’s 174,000 residents.

The Native American reservation, which stretches across the Arizona-Utah border line, has had one of the country’s highest infection rates for COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Nearly 9,000 Navajo residents have already contracted the virus and 441 have died.

“I really do believe that handwashing is one of the key ways to mitigate the spread of disease,” Tso said.

Up to 30 percent of Navajo households don’t have a working sink or toilet in their home, according to the Navajo Water Project, and the price for hooking every home up to safe tap water is estimated to cost $700 million.

The lack of water infrastructure has been an issue on the reservation for decades and has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez has routinely testified before Congress, urging the government to formalize water rights that have gone unsettled between Utah and the tribe.

Though Congress currently has some pending bills addressing the Navajo Nation’s water dilemma, the tribe’s leadership has emphasized how this inadequacy has existed long before the pandemic and must be permanently remedied.

Last month, Nez told a congressional committee he was aware of at least 3,400 Navajo homes that are currently deprived of water and sewer facilities. The residents of these households must travel long distances to haul barrels of water, he testified.

Tso, a member of the Navajo Nation, has family members on the reservation.

She grew up learning how its water scarcity would likely jeopardize the safety of her neighbors.

“It’s one of the worst oversights I can think of in a pandemic right now because water shouldn’t be a luxury in this day and age,” Tso said. “I think everyone should have the same ability to have things that we take for granted in an urban setting.”

The Navajo culture is communal, Tso said, and households often have multiple generations of one family living together.

These circumstances are the ingredients for a “perfect storm” for the virus to rapidly spread, she added.

“It’s an interdependent culture. It’s an interdependent society that they live in,” Tso said. “There’s an understanding that everyone does link to everyone else.”

The Navajo Nation is expected to receive more than $650 million through the government’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief Economic Security Act and tribal leadership plans to spend $143 million on new water projects.

But Tso said Navajo members need relief now and can’t wait several more weeks or months for piping and water mains to be built out.

Her solution is to deliver handwashing stations and water jugs to individual homes so that residents don’t have to worry about their hygiene.

No electricity is required to operate the portable sinks, she added, and users can safely wash their hands by stepping on a foot pump.

Each sink only costs about $150 to purchase and deliver to the reservation. Tso made sure to include plenty of towels, toilet paper, soaps, and bottled water as part of each kit that’s been shipped to every household.

Over the last three months, Tso has collected $15,000 in donations and delivered 110 sinks to Navajo families most severely impacted by the pandemic.

She intends to continue delivering sinks until every family on the reservation has access to clean, running water.

Most people don’t know about all the struggles Navajo members have endured for generations, Tso added, so they deserve to be acknowledged and supported.

“I want them to know I’m here to just make sure they know that the younger generation remembers them and we’re doing what we can to protect them,” Tso said.

Tso is accepting donations through a page and more information can be found on her Facebook page called “The Watered: Water Acquisition Team for Every Resident and Every Dine.”

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