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Inside the newsroom: The power of a story and iconic photos from the West

Korene Atene, a certified nursing assistant with the Monument Valley Health Center, gets information from people lined up to get tested for COVID-19 outside of the center in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Thursday, April 16, 2020. The Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the country.
Korene Atene, a certified nursing assistant with the Monument Valley Health Center, gets information from people lined up to get tested for COVID-19 outside of the center in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Thursday, April 16, 2020. The Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the country.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The year 2019 closed quietly, yet ominously with news out of China on Dec. 31 that dozens of residents of Wuhan were suffering from pneumonia. Days later this report from the New York Times out of Hong Kong noted a possible cause, but without the information that we now know would change the course of history:

“HONG KONG, Jan. 8, 2020 — Chinese researchers say they have identified a new virus behind an illness that has infected dozens of people across Asia, setting off fears in a region that was struck by a deadly epidemic 17 years ago.

“There is no evidence that the new virus is readily spread by humans, which would make it particularly dangerous, and it has not been tied to any deaths. But health officials in China and elsewhere are watching it carefully to ensure that the outbreak does not develop into something more severe.”

Of course we now know it is spread by humans and it is deadly, particularly to vulnerable populations. Saturday’s totals: More than 2.8 million cases of COVID-19 with 202,000 deaths worldwide. In Utah, there are 3,948 positive cases out of 90,206 tested. Forty-one people have died.

The coronavirus quickly appeared in Japan, South Korea and Thailand. Images began emerging of South Korea on lockdown. Italy became a focal point, with images of an empty Piazza San Marco in Venice. In the United States, the Seattle suburb of Kirkland emerged as a hot spot with many residents of a care facility sick and then dying. Then the crisis in New York took center stage, again with iconic images of an empty Times Square.

This week add the pictures of the Navajo Nation to the mix of iconic pictures that will remain to tell the story of the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. It’s one slice of the still emerging story and was chronicled by Deseret News reporter Amy Donaldson and photojournalist Kristin Murphy last week.

Vehicles line up for COVID-19 testing outside of the Monument Valley Health Center in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Friday, April 17, 2020. More than a thousand people got tested over the course of two days. The Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the country.
Vehicles line up for COVID-19 testing outside of the Monument Valley Health Center in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Friday, April 17, 2020 in this image captured by a drone. More than a thousand people got tested over the course of two days. The Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the country.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The images evoke western wagon trains, pioneers headed west for a better life, over the barren land and the buttes that marked the landscape. Murphy’s images show a line of cars with people from the Navajo Nation seeking a different kind of life-saving freedom, this time from a virus the world still knows very little about.

“The drone shot was from our second day there, so I was familiar with the landscape by that point and had a pretty good idea of what it would look like,” Murphy said. “Testing was supposed to start at 9 a.m. Friday. A few cars were starting to line up by 6:30 a.m. when I hopped out of my camper parked by the testing site. By 8:30 the line was out to the highway,” she said, noting that the health care staff got straight to work, even before the appointed time.

Serving others is a key component of this crisis and the picture that leads this column shows that service.

Her photo of Andy Byrnes, a contracted emergency medical technician with the Utah Department of Health, was part of the Associated Press North America Pictures of the Week. Exhaustion knows no boundary for health care workers throughout the world.

Andy Byrnes, a contracted emergency medical technician with the Utah Department of Health, rests on the sidewalk near the end of a second day of testing for COVID-19 outside of the Monument Valley Health Center in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Friday, April 17, 2020. The mobile testing team tested 1,060 people in two days.
Andy Byrnes, a contracted emergency medical technician with the Utah Department of Health, rests on the sidewalk near the end of a second day of testing for COVID-19 outside of the Monument Valley Health Center in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Friday, April 17, 2020. The mobile testing team tested 1,060 people in two days.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“What struck me the most when I first arrived was the visual juxtaposition of a scary ‘ugly’ thing happening in such a beautiful place. It was surreal,” Murphy said.

Journalist Amy Donaldson has maintained a love for storytelling, particularly the stories of the underserved and less recognized people in society. As a sports writer she would press her editors to tell the stories of girls and women in athletics, highlighting high school girls wrestling, issues surrounding Title IX and many of the lesser-told stories in what often is a male-dominated sports landscape.

Looking at the reach of the pandemic into the Navajo Nation is a natural extension of her give-voice-to-the-voiceless ethic.

“Having spent about a year researching a piece on Indian Health Services in the ’90s, I knew that the tribal members who live in Utah and the reservation were often overlooked by both state and local governments (because they live on tribal land) and tribal leaders (because there are only about 8,000 of the 150,000 tribal members living on the reservation inside Utah’s borders),” Donaldson said, as I discussed the assignment with her Saturday.

“I have friends who live in Arizona on the reservation and they posted on social media about the curfews and the restrictions, and I realized they were dealing with a lot of the same issues — loss of jobs, closed businesses, fear of getting sick — that we city dwellers were dealing with, but they had to also deal with the complexities of two types of government.”

Key to the story was the willingness of volunteers to go to the source, test the residents of the area where they are.

“The Utah Department of Health has never dispatched a mobile response to a crisis, and Utah Navajo Health Systems is a unique and innovative health care provider that didn’t exist when I looked into health care issues among Native people 25 years ago,” Donaldson said.

She added: “Working with them, I felt like we were empowering them to tell their stories: the outbreak, being overlooked, securing services and supplies from a variety of government, non-profit and commercial sources, and how they’ve rallied to help each other.”

Such a story can bring the nation closer together. When it comes to fighting a common enemy like COVID-19, no one should be forgotten. Health care workers are doing their part to make sure that doesn’t happen.