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  • Writer's pictureDaniele Kielmanowicz

Indigenous people's struggle and responses to Coronavirus

By Daniele Kielmanowicz

Around the world, indigenous people’s vulnerabilities and challenges to preserve their livelihood has intensified due the COVID-19 pandemic. In this context, we have found the responses to support indigenous people's struggles during the global health crisis have come not only from governments, who have often failed to sufficiently integrate indigenous people in their policy and public actions, but also from civil society and their own communities.

Since indigenous people are among the world’s poorest and most vulnerable groups and are highly exposed to poverty, unemployment, malnutrition and both communicable and non-communicable diseases, they tend to be at higher risk in the face of new viruses. With COVID-19, experts claim that the situation is not any different. Indigenous people who are already facing several challenges to preserve their livelihoods are now at higher risk due to the pandemic.

Indigenous people have historically received lower care and witnessed higher mortality rates than other ethnic groups. The Māori people’s mortality rate in New Zealand during the Spanish Flu in 1918, was indeed 7.3 times higher than for the rest of the population. In 2009 in Canada, during the H1N1 Swine Flu outbreak, aboriginal Canadians accounted for 17.6% of deaths, despite representing only 4.4% of the entire Canadian population.

The vulnerability of indigenous people to COVID-19 is also remarkable. In the US, one out of every 2,300 indigenous Americans that contracted the virus has died, compared to one in 3,600 white Americans. After Black Americans, indigenous people are the second ethnic group most vulnerable to COVID-19 in the US.

In addition to having lower immunity to infectious diseases, indigenous people are indeed often settled in remote places with fewer hospitals, healthcare professionals and access to ventilators. In remote places like Northern Canada, many towns and villages cannot be accessed by road and require transportation via boat or plane to reach hospitals. In other words, they are badly equipped to survive this crisis.

Particularly at risk are the Amazonian indigenous groups who often live days away from hospitals and medical assistance, as highlighted by the authorities of Brazil, Colombia and Peru. The pandemic is adding to the alarming situation for Amazon tribes. The ecological crisis, increased threats of deforestation, fires, industrial extractions and agribusiness expansion have become further intensified by the pandemic. Amazon Watch Executive Director Leila Salazar-Lopez stated that "Now, the pandemic has created one more crisis, and as each day passes, the risk of ethnocide becomes more real”.

Pre-existing conditions and poor nutrition also contribute to making indigenous people even more vulnerable. While indigenous people’s ethnic groups and culture vary greatly across the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, these populations all share a higher rate of chronic health issues (such as asthma, diabetes or cardiovascular diseases) in comparison with the rest of the population, making them more susceptible to severe reactions to COVID-19.

Social distancing policies or lockdowns can also be harmful for indigenous people that rely on daily product sales in local markets. Indigenous people in some countries are already dealing with the impacts of climate change in their agriculture activities, as their farming practices are failing to adapt to changing weather conditions and seasons, which affects their crops and income.

Governments actions to protect indigenous people against COVID-19

While the United Nations Inter-Agency Support Group (IASG) on Indigenous Issues made a statement in light of the COVID-19 pandemic urging governments to take into consideration indigenous people's needs, specific risks and vulnerabilities in the response strategies against COVID, many countries enacted only limited efforts with enormous delays, preventing them from protecting such vulnerable groups.

In the United States, the Navajo Nation with a population of more than 173,000 spread across the states of Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, has been hard hit by COVID-19, with more than 4,944 confirmed cases and 159 deaths as of May 29. Despite the gravity of the situation, the Navajo received little support and insufficient funding from the federal government. Although the U.S. Congress passed the COVID-19 stimulus law that mandated $8 billion of relief funds for the Native American people, the money was not made available until mid-May, only after some communities sued the Treasury Department. The delays in the funding distribution left Native Americans without proper protection and support.

In Canada the funds allotted to support indigenous people were also extremely limited. The government pledged to spend $216 million to protect indigenous Canadians, which represents only around $142 per person, knowing that indigenous people represent almost 4.9% of the population. Moreover, only the indigenous people living on indigenous reserves were eligible for the funding, which made half of the native Canadian population ineligible. After the Congress of Aboriginal People in Canada filed a federal court application saying that the government's response to COVID-19 was discriminatory, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced an additional $54 million support to indigenous people that were left behind.

Another misstep made by some governments was the way they communicated and enforced lockdown restrictions within indigenous communities. For instance, in New South Wales in Australia, a ban on “non-essential outings” imposed a fine of up to 11,000 Australian dollars, or even prison, for those that violated the lockdown. Since Aboriginal Australians’ per capita income is already 33% lower than of other ethnical groups, the COVID lockdown fines were way too expensive for them to pay. In addition, people living in remote places were not informed about the pandemic policies and did not behave accordingly to avoid fines.

Brazil has a vast jungle territory, with a scattered indigenous population (817.963 people in 2010) with over 256 different indigenous groups. The coronavirus, which attacks the respiratory system, also greatly affected the inhabitants of the Amazon, the so-called lung of the world. Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state, where part of the Yanomami indigenous reserve is located, has also been hit very hard by the pandemic. The virus was brought to indigenous communities mainly through roadbuilders, wildcat gold miners and illegal loggers.

Before the pandemic, indigenous people in Brazil were already locked in what activists call a “historic struggle for survival”. President Bolsonaro is accused by critics of favoring the invasion of indigenous reserves and deforestation (which has increased 30% since 2019), of downplaying destructive fire episodes in the Amazon Forest and in the Pantanal, and for dismantling national agencies responsible for indigenous people’s protection. Within this context, the coronavirus pandemic intensified the existing drama already facing native populations. The timeline below illustrates the Brazilian government’s actions to protect indigenous people during the sanitary crisis:

Source: Policy Shift / Data source: ISA

The result of this sequence of events by October 2nd was a total of 28,924 COVID-19 confirmed cases and 447 deaths in indigenous lands, affecting 158 different indigenous groups. The map that follows shows the level of vulnerability of the Indigenous Lands to COVID-19 across the country.

Vulnerability Map of Indigenous Lands in Brazil to COVID-19

Source: ISA

Indigenous communities and the civil society reactions to governments’ inaction

In the face of these difficult circumstances and of the lack of government support and limited resources, indigenous communities are stepping up, confronting grave threats to their survival and providing support where governments have failed. They are taking action using traditional knowledge, adopting practices such as voluntary isolation, closing up their territory and taking preventive measures to avoid the spread of the virus.

In some cases, indigenous people implemented public health measures to curb the spread of the virus in their communities by making masks, ensuring that information on COVID-19 is available in local languages, and distributing food and other primary necessities. Some indigenous people also chose to isolate. The Siekopai nation in Ecuador, with about 45 elders, adults and children, traveled deep into the forest to escape the exposure to coronavirus. In Alaska, more than 200 subsistence communities of indigenous people have also isolated themselves.

In other cases, indigenous people called for the help of the international community and civil society, as was the case in Brazil, where indigenous people asked the World Health Organization to create a special emergency fund to protect them. The Native American tribe, the Havasupai, living next to the Grand Canyon National Park, rely on tourism to earn a living, an activity that was highly affected since the beginning of the pandemic. In response they created a crowdfunding campaign to make up for their income loss.

Celebrities also took action to mobilize civil society, by fundraising or pressuring national authorities to support indigenous people. An open letter by photojournalist Sebastião Salgado, along with a global coalition of artists - from Ai Wei Wei to Meryl Streep and Pedro Almodovar - warned Brazilian authorities, namely President Jair Bolsonaro, about the danger of the COVID-19 pandemic to indigenous communities in the Amazon. Youth activist Greta Thunberg promoted the campaign SOS Amazon in her Twitter account to fundraise money in support of the indigenous people in the Amazon. The candidate for the 2020 Nobel Prize, the indigenous leader Cacique Raoni Metuktire, well-known for his long trajectory in defense of the indigenous people’s rights in Brazil and the world, who has himself contracted the corona virus at the age of 90 years old, has also called for international support.

In a Guidance Note from United Nations, the following policy recommendations were suggested to countries that are home to indigenous people and are currently facing the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Ensure the inclusion of the indigenous peoples’ views and needs in the programs and aid efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic;

  • Assess the needs and requirements of indigenous people to prevent and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic;

  • Provide information on preventive measures in indigenous languages;

  • Promote dialogue between the state, indigenous people, health and science experts on approaches to isolation, testing, access to health services and access to scientific information, etc.

The pandemic is not over and its final impact on indigenous people cannot yet be measured. The vulnerability of indigenous people and lack of governmental protection are still prevailing, and governments should be held accountable for their actions or inaction to protect their most vulnerable populations. Policies to protect indigenous people, especially under an exceptional circumstance such as the COVID-19 pandemic, are of great importance to preserve their livelihood, wisdom and knowledge, essential to restoring nature in the context of the environmental crisis currently facing us all.



BBC, How Covid-19 could destroy indigenous communities

ISA, COVID-19 e os Povos Indígenas

Le Monde, « Il n’y a plus de limite ! » : au Brésil, la déforestation augmente, conséquence indirecte du coronavirus

National Geographic, Indigenous farming practices failing as climate change disrupts seasons

The Conversation, Judge orders Brazil to protect Indigenous people from ravages of COVID-19

El Pais, Os indígenas da Amazônia lançam um SOS para pedir proteção ante a pandemia

Time, 'Go Make Camps Deeper in the Forest.' How the Amazon's Indigenous People are Handling the Threat of the Coronavirus

Time, 'We Know What Is Best for Us.' Indigenous Groups Around the World Are Taking COVID-19 Responses Into Their Own Hands

The Guardian, ‘We are on the eve of a genocide’: Brazil urged to save Amazon tribes from Covid-19

United Nations, COVID-19 and indigenous peoples’ resilience

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