In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to cascade across New Mexico, it became obvious that the ground had shifted and that — in the way of all pandemics — powerful changes were imminent. We at Searchlight began grasping for ways to bear witness and record the changes at ground level, where human lives and futures are at stake. Like many things journalistic, this was easier said than done.
Searchlight is charged with covering New Mexico, including its most rural, remote and impoverished corners. Now, many of those places were hotspots for the coronavirus — risky to visit, and all the more important to see. Public health orders posed additional challenges: New Mexicans were directed to hunker down at home, essentially locking them behind closed doors. Children and families who were neglected in the best of times were now hidden away.
We wanted to bring them into view.
The result was an intensive project — “Hitting Home” — that would tell the story of the pandemic through the eyes of residents in five iconic towns, all steeped in struggle, history and now, perhaps, a battle for their lives. By visiting these communities time and again over the course of a year, we would reveal how the pandemic was changing lives or tragically ending them.
The future was being transformed before our eyes, which is, again, the way of pandemics. Historians today credit the 1918 flu for triggering “the convulsive social changes of the 1920s — the frenzy of financial speculation, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, the explosion of Dionysian popular culture (jazz, flappers, speakeasies),” as Charles C. Mann wrote in The Atlantic last year.
None of those effects took place overnight, and it’s still way too early to predict what long-lasting changes COVID-19 will bring. But after a year and numerous trips to the five towns — Gallup, Shiprock, Las Vegas, Carlsbad and Anthony — we’ve seen it expose the vulnerabilities of New Mexico’s most marginalized residents.
The Navajo Nation presented a stark picture of what happens when a health crisis erupts in a place where needs have been ignored for centuries. In April, just as we were beginning to report our first stories, the tribal nation documented 830 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 30 deaths, numbers that at the time seemed staggering. Today, nearly 31,000 people there have been infected and more than 1,300 have died.
“Just as COVID-19 preys on the vulnerabilities in your body, it exploits the vulnerabilities of a community,” wrote J. Weston Phippen in our first story about Gallup. There, “the virus found a people weakened by poverty, an anemic healthcare system and ingrained historic racism.”
People experienced the pandemic in ways particular to their histories. They came to the disaster with the things they’d been given, which in many cases was not enough. In places like Anthony, the word people most often used to describe their lives was “scarcity,” as Alicia Inez Guzmán reported this May. Many Anthony residents are migrant farmworkers who toil in close proximity to one another in the fields and dairies of Southern New Mexico; as the pandemic grew, this led to clusters of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Few farmworkers have access to health care or the ability to take time off to seek a doctor; many have no car, so getting to a clinic is impossible. Even before the pandemic, the per capita income in Anthony was $11,000, which prompted another dire problem: Hunger. In the breadbasket of the state, home to more farms and ranches than almost anywhere else in New Mexico, at least one in six people have experienced food insecurity.
In all the Hitting Home towns, volunteers and nonprofits stepped in to offer a Band-Aid for the hurting — but some of these towns have suffered major economic wounds for generations. As residents began losing jobs, housing and, in some cases, their health, they went into crisis mode.
Almost nowhere in the country did COVID-19 restrictions take a greater toll than in Gallup. So extreme were the infection rates that at one point the National Guard was called in to barricade the city’s highway off-ramps. With just 3.4 percent of New Mexico’s population, at one point, Gallup accounted for nearly one-third of the state’s COVID-19 deaths.
On the Navajo Nation and in towns across New Mexico, people did whatever they could to survive. But it was often an overwhelming task. This was apparent in “Seeking Shelter,” Ed Williams’ piece about a Gallup family threatened with eviction after they complained about their bug-infested rental with no heat and no stove. The story offered a wake-up call: Too many people in this state live with razor-thin margins. They need the basics. They need support. They need internet service.
And yet …
New Mexicans have shown tremendous hope and resilience. Anthony residents devoted themselves to sustainable agriculture; Carlsbad religious leaders pushed for green energy alternatives; Shiprock residents turned to time-honored traditions and stories from their elders; Las Vegas youth became political activists; Gallup tenants fought wrongful evictions.
When “Hitting Home” drew to a close last week, it was, fittingly, with a story about resourcefulness from Sunnie R. Clahchischiligi, whose commitment to covering the Navajo Nation, her home, shines through in everything she writes. This time, she followed Navajo students who went to enormous lengths to attend virtual school, despite the fact that they lacked computers, Wi-Fi and sometimes even electricity at home. One teen drove miles to find an internet connection on a remote hillside, where he sat alone in a truck all day — for an entire school year — just to attend online classes. During the pandemic, internet access became as critical as currency. Almost no one could thrive without it — yet huge swaths of New Mexico exist in a digital black hole.
We might feel like we’re out of the woods right now, in terms of the pandemic. But we’re actually still deep in the woods — confronting all manner of challenges.
When any community suffers, the entire state suffers – a truism that New Mexico hasn’t ever fully acknowledged. To put it plainly, struggling communities carry a great cost. Impoverished, jobless citizens are at higher risk of developing physical and mental health problems and sometimes end up in the criminal justice system, in hospitals or on the streets. Every thriving citizen, on the other hand, is a potential asset — a productive member of society who votes, holds a job, pays taxes, buys things and participates in his or her community, passing along those values to children and grandchildren.
The health of one is the health of all.
Did you miss one of our Hitting Home stories? Revisit the series here.