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My COVID journey

By Alastair Lee Bitsóí
Special to The Times

SALT LAKE CITY

Courtesy photo
Former Navajo Times reporter Alastair Bitsóí is a COVID-19 survivor.

As I sip pour-over gohwééh (or ’ahwééh depending on what part of Dinétah you’re from) and listen to “At the Aces Wild Dance” on YouTube, I am reminded of our resilience and strength as Diné people.

We have overcome many plights. During primordial creation, we emerged from underworlds to the Hero Twins fighting the ravaging monsters in an effort to restore order from chaos.

From the Long Walk, through droughts, the Spanish Flu, Hantavirus, the 1979 Church Rock uranium spill, overgrazing and livestock reduction, the influence of colonial cultures and systems imposed upon us, the Gold King Mine Spill, the rollback of Bears Ears National Monument, and now the World Health Organization’s declaration of the entire world being in a COVID-19 pandemic, we have endured.

So as long as we stay connected to our cultural identities and the original instructions designated by Changing Woman/White Shell Woman, First Man, First Woman, the Hero Twins, Talking God, Spider Woman, and many other deities like the Air and Fire Peoples, we will get through this as well. As Diné, we know this knowledge, and it must be acknowledged and practiced more than ever, while sheltering in place and following the respective public health orders that help to prevent COVID-19 spread.

Having been quarantine/isolated for the last two months as a COVID-19 survivor, I have come to the conclusion that Nature is in control, and she is cleaning up our anthropogenic impacts.

Values protect us

As Diné people, our values are what keep us protected from most dangers of the world. Our cultural knowledge, ceremonies, faith and narratives of the natural world are what will help us persevere through this pandemic.

After all, our connection to the fire, air, earth, sky, plants/medicines, water and every living being in our universe, including our animal clan protectors, has helped me heal from COVID-19.

And this knowledge that I acquired comes from you – our Diné people – where I had the pleasure to write for the Navajo Times. You’ve all grounded and taught me the importance of our culture, language, ceremony and lifeways. So, thank you for helping me heal with your stories.

On March 24, I tested positive for the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. It’s been a total of 50-something days since onset of COVID-19 symptoms on March 11. COVID-19 exposure occurred either in Utah, Washington, D.C., or New York City.

This was right before the WHO declared a pandemic and when the Seattle area was the major epicenter in America. Given the contagion’s spread, it was just a matter of time before it made its way to Dinétah on March 17. To date, there are now over 1,800 positive cases and 60 deaths, according to the Navajo Department of Health, and currently the Nation is third in concentration of COVID-19 cases per capita, behind New York and New Jersey.

As the whole Navajo Nation, I hope that we will continue to exercise the mandatory public health orders of #StayHomeStaySafeSaveLives as a way to mitigate and contain the virus.

Many seem careless

Up to now, I’ve completed my contact tracing but I’m still unsure exactly when and where I was exposed to the coronavirus. Utah, DC, or NYC? That’s all I know. My journey through this COVID-19 pandemic, like with the rest of you, has not been easy. In fact, it has been a struggle to keep physical distancing and self-quarantine/isolation here in Utah, where many seem careless.

They’re walking around like it’s a regular warm day with no real alarm, and that is frustrating. I’m not sure how it is on Dinétah, but I can imagine that it is likely the same, due in part to our people needing to go to border towns for essentials.

I’ve only gotten updates from my family, and definitely engage them on what I know from afar about the virus being in our communities. In spite of this, it is important that we still follow public health orders from the Navajo Nation, county, states, Indian Health Service, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Recovery for me has ranged through many emotions and experiences, including riding out a 5.7 magnitude earthquake and subsequent 4.2 magnitude aftershocks in the ancestral territories of the Goshute, Ute, Shoshone and Paiute peoples while the virus was incubating in my body. I never knew what an earthquake felt like until that moment, and that is why I now think our Mother Earth is breathing during the lull in our anthropogenic impacts.

With the virus and earthquakes, she is warning us. While I will not rehash how I was denied testing twice and then finally got tested 13 days after onset of COVID-19 symptoms, the purpose of this column is to offer HOPE to my people – shík’e, shí diné’e.

No energy

Earlier in the pandemic, I started to write about my feelings and experiences, but could not muster enough energy. Thus, I deleted earlier accounts. Dry cough and sensitivity in my chest had remained during that period, along with having to overcome the usual COVID-19 symptoms: fever, chills, body aches, diarrhea, shortness of breath and just the anxiety of the unknown.

Now that it has been over 50 days, I feel confident to say I am medically cleared and deemed “recovered” in the epidemiological data of the Salt Lake County Public Health Department and the New Mexico Public Health Department (… such a long story).

While I am fortunate and blessed to overcome the coronavirus, I am still hurt and saddened by how we are all experiencing this pandemic – directly and indirectly – among our peoples and lands. As incident cases continue across Dinétah, my anxiety grows over the wellbeing of my family, relatives, friends, and the rest of our people.

I do my best to alleviate this by breathing exercises, and having faith in the healing properties of our cultural respiratory medicines – sage, cedar, and juniper, among other medicines. Like the Hero Twins and ancestors before, our people use and rely on medicines like sage for healing. In addition, Tylenol, Mucinex, Pedialyte and natural defense mechanisms also aided in recovery.

Writing about my experience and being visible with my recovery has helped me heal. On Day 25 after onset of symptoms, I publicly came out with being a COVID-19 survivor.

Thanks for prayers

I thank all family and friends who issued prayers, supplies and foodstuff on my behalf. I’m forever grateful to you all, and wish you nothing but good health. Please continue to be amazing people, with beautiful intentions.

Even with my healing, I have felt the pushback and criticism with my healing process. While my symptoms have essentially been mild, I’ve had to overcome the jinii of my own faith, my perception of self, being an alleged “gossip,” and allegedly not being humble in my healing journey.

It is vital that as we experience this and continue with our iina (life), we eliminate the unnecessary toxicity. Since doing so and as of this writing, my mental health has been much more focused on healing. This is the other point of this column – an effort to destigmatize myself and others who are COVID-19 survivors and victims. The need to be accountable and transparent in my life – it has taken some growing pains – stems from my experience of being a reporter for the Navajo Times and a freelance writer, where stories of truth matter.

It does not make sense to remain silent as a COVID-19 survivor, especially during this pandemic when our own people need to do their best jobs to follow all public health orders. As a public health advocate, it is necessary to amplify my voice to help others.

It is also in my To’ahani clan to offer healing, as the cougar is my protector and sees through it all with diagnostician abilities.

Offering hope

Despite those meaningless assaults on my recovery, I also write to offer HOPE, which is closely associated with SIHASIN in our culture. As Diné, we are taught to never lose HOPE. When you attend our cultural ceremonies, HOPE is cited in many different ways and forms through singing, prayers and rituals. It’s beautiful, or hózhó.

The fighting journey of the Hero Twins during primordial creation is what gives me HOPE to help destroy monsters like COVID-19. I’m also writing to say it is OK to freak out, be angry, to cry, to push back, and experience any other emotion. It is part of the healing process and human experience.

Through this, I’m learning more about myself, such as the need to remain hopeful, to love, to forgive and to stay connected to the universe. Simple things like how to garden, reclaiming our cultural food systems, herding sheep, learning and relearning Diné bizaad, being an advocate for whatever cause you care about, and basic tenets of life that our Diné people already live and know will help us prevail. May you all continue to Walk the Corn Pollen Path, and rely on our cultural knowledge systems.

We are STRONG. RESILIENT. DINÉ. Hózhó Nahasdlii. Hózhó Nahasdlii. Hózhó Nahasdlii. Hózhó Nahasdlii.


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