Mutual aid efforts ahead of the state on COVID and wildfires

While state officials push responsibility to others, mutual aid groups take proactive steps to protect public health

By: - May 25, 2022 5:00 am

Trenton Devore, Youth Organizer with Pueblo Action Alliance, creates a shroud with tape on a model Corsi-Rosenthal box. He made the box for others to see and understand how it works. (Photo courtesy of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women)

As coronavirus surges and wildfires grow, local community mutual aid organizers in New Mexico have responded much differently than state officials.

Rather than placing responsibility on individuals, Indigenous-led mutual aid groups approach the pandemic, and now the 2022 wildfire season, with the understanding that public health is a matter of community responsibility.

To understand how these mutual aid efforts work differently, it is important to understand the geography of the place where the wildfires are raging, and the material realities of how COVID-19 affects marginalized communities.

Smoke from wildfires settles within the landscape of the northern Pueblos, called the Tewa Basin, because of the way it is shaped. And coronavirus has disproportionately impacted Indigenous communities in New Mexico, because of existing racist inequities like unequal prior health status, unequal access to health care, and the prevalence of multi-generational households.

If there’s smoke coming from anywhere, the Pueblos are going to be impacted, said Marquel Musgrave, membership and communications director for Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women.

“Just like if there are other things coming from Los Alamos National Labs: they’re gonna be impacted the most,” Musgrave (Nambé) said of the northern Pueblos.

After state and federal governments opened disaster recovery centers for people fleeing from the wildfires this year, members of the Coalition saw that there was no masking at the facilities, Musgrave said. They said that it must be stressful for people going there who understand how coronavirus spreads and have no choice but to stay somewhere in an emergency.

“It’s just like public transportation or any public space,” they said.

The Coalition has been distributing N95 masks and other personal protective equipment to their communities, including all of the tribal communities in New Mexico. Since 2020, they have handed out 14,245 masks to the public, their member organizations and advocates working in domestic violence shelters, direct service providers, and tribal prevention programs.

Renae Lee, a Diné educator with Tewa Roots Society, holds a HEPA filter and a printed education tool created by Pueblo Action Alliance. Lee, who works with Pueblo communities, received one of the Corsi-Rosenthal box kits and created tutorial on social media of herself making it to share with others. (Photo courtesy of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women)

They have also distributed 81 air purifiers and 20 kits with all the parts needed and instructions on how to make do-it-yourself Corsi-Rosenthal boxes. They plan to distribute 2 CR box kits, two carbon dioxide readers and two more air purifiers to every tribal community in New Mexico, Musgrave said.

The Coalition started distributing three air purifiers to their member organizations in fall 2020 and to tribal communities impacted by wildfires including Mescalero Apache Tribe.

Musgrave knew that by sharing information about good air filtration practices, it would grow and be better. Tewa Women United then hired an environmental justice coordinator who went on to hold workshops to get the boxes into every space, Musgrave said.

By the time Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon grew, they were already aware of how to mitigate the smoke. So they sent out air purifiers and N95s to the evacuee donation point at the Poeh Cultural Center in Pojoaque, Musgrave said.

Tewa Women United is planning to get 25 CR boxes out to two Pueblos in the north.

Pueblo Action Alliance also created education tools like infographics to spread the word about CR boxes and safety tips for COVID and wildfires, and to explicitly draw the connections between COVID-19, wildfire smoke and respiratory health. They also printed them out and included them with the CR box kits.

NDN Collective funded the latest distribution of boxes to Pueblo people impacted by the wildfire smoke, Musgrave said, 20 kits with instructions on how to make CR boxes.

Musgrave hopes that the officials running the disaster recovery centers are open to learning more about COVID mitigation, and implementing the tools needed to mitigate all of the risks that evacuees are facing, not just wildfire smoke but also COVID-19.

“Especially now, with New Mexico seeing an increase in cases and hospitalizations, there hasn’t been a real naming of that happening,” Musgrave said. “So that way, all evacuees who are immunocompromised or have small children are protected and centered in the efforts to support all of them.”

The mission of the Coalition is to restore healthy communities in alignment with their values they’ve created collectively and stemming from their cultural values as Indigenous peoples, which centers the importance of lives in a different way than settler society.

Those values are culture, kinship, innovation, healing and inclusivity, Musgrave said.

Hundreds of scientists wrote to the World Health Organization in July 2020 telling them that COVID is airborne. But the organization did not recognize airborne spread as a key way people are infected until April 2021, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t officially acknowledge it until a month later.

The White House finally acknowledged it in March 2022.

“If they know this, then the federal government should be making sure that every public space has a different criteria of safety, and our tax dollars could be funding all of that,” Musgrave said. “It shouldn’t be an individual, business or organization effort to do that.”

Coalition organizers see distributing high-quality masks and air filtration systems as just another way to fill gaps in the United States system, they said.

“Tribal communities have the opportunity to lean into our traditional value systems as guides to protect our people in a stronger way than the U.S.,” they said.

Filtration systems are another potential tool to mitigate the spread of the virus, said New Mexico Department of Health spokesperson Jodi McGinnis Porter on Tuesday morning.

But the Department of Health doesn’t view itself as responsible for ensuring those filtration systems are actually installed in disaster recovery centers.

“Any addition of air purifiers or other infrastructure would be determined by the organizations in charge of day-to-day operations,” McGinnis Porter said.

McGinnis Porter pointed to an example of an unnamed local government official who asked to monitor indoor air quality in the Glorieta shelter.

“A monitor was installed, and the local disaster response team was advised on how they could purchase more using available FEMA funds,” McGinnis Porter said.

So if an evacuee comes to one of these shelters, and the area is covered in smoke, where are they supposed to go to protect themselves and their loved ones from wildfire smoke and coronavirus?

McGinnis Porter said a shelter would only be operated in those circumstances “if it was absolutely necessary and only for a limited time.”

“Anyone with known health conditions would be recommended to leave for lodging at available smoke-free shelters, but they have the right to choose,” McGinnis Porter said. “People do not always follow recommendations (such as wearing protective masks) and are free to take care of themselves and their families as they see fit.”

‘No one is disposable’

State officials’ framing of public health as a matter of individual choice and individual risk has critics both inside and outside of New Mexico.

Someone’s risk of catching coronavirus is not determined only by their individual actions or choices, said Amanda Makulec, a public health data professional and organizer with Protect Their Future. It also includes risk to someone’s community, family and households, Makulec said.

“We have not taken that approach as a country throughout the pandemic,” she said.

By contrast, the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women asks in its work: who is the most impacted, how do we continue to support, protect and uplift them so spaces are accessible for them, and they can actually take on those roles?

“No one is disposable, and everyone has a role in community,” Musgrave said. “For us, that looks like making sure that the spaces we’re a part of are accessible for immunocompromised relatives, for little ones who don’t have vaccine access, for our unsheltered relatives, for our trans relatives.”

That also includes people who live at the intersection of being the most impacted by violence, whether it’s state violence or systemic violence. Failing to make spaces safe for immunocompromised relatives is an example of systemic violence, Musgrave said.

Musgrave herself is at high-risk for severe outcomes of catching coronavirus because she has severe asthma. They already had air purifiers and had been masking before the pandemic occasionally during high pollen counts or wildfire smoke, and their home Nambé Pueblo was impacted by wildfire smoke and COVID early in the pandemic.

“While everybody was in lockdown, people were in their homes, they couldn’t really leave,” they said. “I saw a need especially for elders and other folks with sensitive respiratory systems to have air purifiers to be able to survive the level of wildfire smoke that we were seeing and experiencing.”

A lot of the homes in Nambé did not have updated HVAC systems, Musgrave said, and people generally cool their homes by leaving their windows open. People couldn’t do that with the smoke, so there needed to be some kind of response around closing the windows, getting air purifiers and fans in so people could stay cool during hot weather, they said.

So Musgrave started buying air purifiers with their own money, and that grew into a mutual aid effort focused on the people most impacted including elders, people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or asthma, or very small children.

Three Sisters Collective helped Musgrave manage the money, and they were able to get air purifiers into every household in Nambé, they said. Eventually the tribal government took over the initiative to continue to get them out as people need them, they said.

“This is going to be a continuing problem, with the climate crisis,” Musgrave said.

New Mexico is facing extremely dry and increasingly hot weather due to the climate crisis, they said, which is itself caused by extractive industries and increased emissions within the state.

“So this is a mitigation tool that we should be implementing and preparing,” Musgrave said. “Every house should have these, and they should know the ways to keep them safe.”

This is the third story in a series on wildfires and coronavirus. Here are parts one and two.

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.