By Hannah Tyler
*A note on language: During the writing of this piece I learned, ironically, that Navajo is not a Navajo word. It was a name imposed by the Spanish from a Tewa-puebloan word that means place of large planted fields. Dinè means ‘the people’ in Navajo language and a vote in 2017 to officially change the name was rejected so I’ve used Navajo in this article. Please let us know if you feel this is the wrong choice.
In 1993, several people near Four Corners, USA died of an unexplained illness. The deaths occurred on the Navajo Nation, which is an autonomous state not required to report unexplained deaths in the same way as other states. However, the close links between those who died alerted doctors to the presence of something very wrong: an illness the Navajo called Sin Nombre, Spanish for without a name.
The investigation that followed brought a huge amount of media attention reporting this unexplained virus. In the early stages no one knew what the pathogen was or how it was transmitted. It became known as Muerto Canyon Virus or the Four Corners virus, and major news outlets referred to Sin Nombre as the ‘Navajo flu’ or ‘Navajo disease’. Incidents of racism proliferated: a waiter wearing gloves to serve the only Navajo people in a café, health certificates required for Navajo schoolchildren on a trip to California. The reporting also interrupted the mourning for the dead. When Navajo people grieve they don’t mention the deceased’s name for four days—but there they were, all over the news.
Four corners lies at the intersection of New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona. A collaboration between these states’ health services and the CDC led to the discovery that this condition was a type of hantavirus not previously known in the area. Hantaviruses are typically found in Europe, Asia and South America—the virus’ name comes from the Hantaan river in South Korea. They are spread by rodents, and the case in Four Corners was no different: deer mice proved to be the reservoir for the disease.
Mice carry the virus without getting sick, shedding the pathogen in their urine and droppings. Luckily, it doesn’t pass between humans. Most people who catch the disease get it by inhaling dust kicked up when cleaning out sheds or working in the backyard. In 1993, a period of rain after a long drought produced an abundance of deer mouse-friendly food, and the population exploded. More mice meant more mice becoming infected, and more mice marking their territory with urine.
Like many things in science, the virus wasn’t new. People had been dying from this hantavirus for years, but their deaths were fewer when mouse populations were smaller—and no one noticed until the death tolls grew and scientists ‘discovered’ the virus. But when lung tissue samples of those with ‘unexplained’ deaths taken for a study were re-examined, cases were found dating back as far as 1959.
A key to the trajectory of the disease that had been overlooked were Navajo oral histories. They describe outbreaks in 1918, 1933, and 1934, and mice in the home had long been associated with sickness. In fact, Navajo medicine recommends the same methods for preventing the disease as the CDC. The CDC refers to this fact as ‘striking’, showing the condescending attitude of many institutions when it comes to the local people affected by a specific disease.
Navajo people objected to the original names for the disease and successfully campaigned to have it called Sin Nombre, bucking a long trend of naming viruses after the places where they emerged. Ebola is named after a river, Hendra is a suburb of Brisbane, Marburg is a town in Germany. A notable exception is the Spanish flu, which doesn’t come from Spain. The disease became known as the Spanish flu simply because Spain was one of the only places where it was publicly discussed—they were neutral at the end of WWI and had a free press, unlike the wartime censorship in place in much of the rest of the world. The H1N1 flu is commonly known as Swine flu, a name that was rejected by Isreal for its associations with pigs (but the alternative suggestion ‘Mexican flu’ wasn’t much better). The 2009 H1N1 outbreak actually started in the United States.
In 2015 the WHO changed their guidelines on naming viruses: they are no longer to be named after places, people, or animals.
So when, in 2020, COVID-19 is referred to as ‘Chinese flu’ or ‘Kung flu’, we know this is a specific choice to encourage discrimination towards a group of people. The many incidents of discrimination against Asian people in the wake of COVID-19 echo the experiences of Navajo people in 1993. This goes back much further in history, right through to the treatment of Jewish people in Europe during the plague.
Different viruses and bacteria live all over the globe, and there are a variety of ways they slip between human and animal populations. One of the major reasons it happens is increased exploitation of the environment, which is often for the benefit of Western nations and involves the exploitation of Indigenous, Black, and POC communities. The Navajo nation has been one of the worst hit communities in the US. The naming of zoonotic diseases may seem like something small or symbolic in the scheme of a pandemic, but it is just the start of how racism manifests in response to disease and we need to stamp it out as early as possible.