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Irish Donate to Native American Coronavirus Fund in Appreciation for Famine Aid

This story was originally published May 6, 2020 by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

More than $2.6 million has been raised to buy food, water and masks for Navajo and Hopi families hit by the new coronavirus, with Irish people flocking to donate in return for famine aid that Native Americans gave their ancestors centuries ago.

The solidarity between the two communities dates back to 1847, when the Choctaw Nation donated $170, the equivalent of thousands of dollars today, to help starving Irish people hit by the Great Famine, one of the worst famines in history.

"We have lost so many of our sacred Navajo elders and youth to COVID-19. It is truly devastating. And a dark time in history for our Nation," Vanessa Tulley, one of the organizers of the GoFundMe online fundraising page, said on the website. "We are so grateful ... Acts of kindness from indigenous ancestors passed being reciprocated nearly 200 years later through blood memory and interconnectedness. Thank you, IRELAND for showing solidarity and being here for us."

FILE PHOTO: A relief worker helps another volunteer load supplies into a pickup truck at a farm, used as a base for aid to Navajo families quarantined in their homes due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Hogback, Shiprock, New Mexico, U.S., April 7
FILE PHOTO: A relief worker helps another volunteer load supplies into a pickup truck at a farm, used as a base for aid to Navajo families quarantined in their homes due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Hogback, Shiprock, New Mexico, U.S., April 7, 2020. Picture taken April 7, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Hay

Like African-Americans and Hispanics, Native Americans are suffering disproportionately from the virus, which has exposed stark inequalities in U.S. healthcare, housing and services.

With high rates of diabetes, heart disease and obesity, which increase the risk of coronavirus complications, COVID-19 fatalities among the Navajos are twice the national per capita rate, Navajo Department of Health data shows.

The fundraisers said the Navajo and Hopi reservations were "food deserts" with 16 grocery stores serving more than 180,000 people, forcing residents to drive hundreds of miles to cities for supplies, increasing their risk of infection.

One in two Navajo residents were unemployed and one in three without running water, they added, making it difficult to wash their hands to ward off the virus.

"Returning the favor to our brothers and sisters across the pond during your time of need," wrote one GoFundMe donor Hollie Ellis, who gave $15. "Thank you for helping my ancestors during the famine."

Many other donors simply wrote "from Ireland with love."

The Native Americans' gift to the Irish in 1847 was inspired by their own suffering, when they were forced off their lands to make way for white settlers in the 1830s. Some 4,000 people died on the long trek west to the reservations.

"Such an incredible act of kindness and generosity from a people who themselves did not have much to give is a memory that forms part of the Irish psyche," the National Museum of Ireland's Audrey Whitty told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Reporting by Amber Milne; Editing by Katy Migiro.

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