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Isolation in the face of epidemics: a survival strategy for Indigenous Peoples


The compulsory isolation declared by several countries to prevent the spread of COVID-19 calls for reflection on the isolation that several Indigenous Peoples have chosen in order to survive external intervention that, with different interests, triggers diseases and deaths, disrupts their daily lives and endangers their future.

By Beatriz Huertas and Neptalí Cueva*

April 4, 2020.- On the recommendation of experts, the borders of several countries have been closed and millions of families are confined to their homes to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Although the spread of SARS 1 led to the closure of international airports at the beginning of the century, there has not been a health crisis of such magnitude that has triggered measures such as mandatory quarantines that have such high social, economic and political costs.

"Isolation or social distancing", new for most of society, is actually a strategy and a way of life adopted by various Indigenous Peoples, specifically termed "in isolation", to protect themselves from the devastating effects of diseases and the violence historically unleashed against them.

Photo - ORAU, 2008

In this regard, there are numerous Indigenous Peoples who, when exposed to external agents in the past, suffered massive deaths due to the spread of unknown diseases against which their immune systems had not developed adequate defences. They have also suffered territorial invasions, persecutions, massacres, slavery and harassment due to the high value of resources such as rubber, latex, sarsaparilla, curare, skins or wood, in national and international markets, since the late nineteenth century.

As a consequence, many aspects of their lives were severely affected: their demographics, daily life, worldview, ancestral knowledge, institutions, their territories and subsistence practices, and their emotional balance. Because of this, they chose to distance themselves from epidemics, violence and even from other Indigenous Peoples. This “protective self-isolation” is what governments and health authorities are currently trying to establish in their countries.

Survivors of epidemics are after contact severely affected in their economic, social and cultural activities, in their daily lives, and in their future.

In that effort, they moved to the most remote and inaccessible forests of their territories, upstream of the areas they inhabited, having to develop a series of adaptations and production systems to be able to live in these geographic spaces far from the most fertile lands. These territories became vital spaces for their survival. To avoid being found, they adopted various strategies: some abandoned cultural practices such as pottery making, allowing them greater mobility through the forest; while others stopped clearing spaces for the construction of houses.

Today, the devastating effects of epidemics remain a threat in such communities. Diseases that are common to us, such as flu and diarrhoea, are highly harmful to them because they do not have an adequate immune response. The threat against their territories of invasions, the attacks that these entail, their perception of the "other", their way of life and the way they relate to their environment, explain their decision to continue in isolation to this day. The most remote areas of the Amazon, Asia and Africa, the dry forest of the Gran Chaco, the Eastern Region of Paraguay, constitute the territories and refuges of many of the isolated peoples.

The impact of epidemics on communities in isolation and initial contact

Until a few months ago, COVID-19 was an unknown virus; antibodies to fight it do not yet exist. This, added to the ease of contagion and a globalised world with fluid transit between countries and continents, shape it as an unprecedented pandemic that in three months has infected almost a million people leading to the death of approximately 5%. The magnitude of the contagion fills us with fear and awe, even more so when these figures relate to countries that are highly developed economically and technologically, with organised health systems and a great capacity to overcome crises.

Transfer this situation to Indigenous communities in isolation or initial contact, not only regarding the coronavirus, but also several other pathogens very common for us, and associated with deficiencies or the absence of a health system that can withstand them. This could severely reduce their numbers, and comes with risks in terms of sociocultural continuity. And among those who survive, the multiple mutations of the virus would explain why they repeat similar patterns within the same year.


In this way, what for the surrounding society could be a simple "epidemic outbreak" due to the low number of cases, for some communities in isolation or initial contact, it may represent a true epidemic due to the small size of their population. Furthermore, viruses in these populations can have a high fatality rate because the deceased could represent a significant percentage among those infected. Conversely, this proportion of those affected, viewed from a regional or national level, may not be relevant for governments and decision-makers and may even go unnoticed.

The pandemic that we face has been generating fear, anxiety and uncertainty among the population, in addition to economic problems caused by the suspension of jobs and productive activities as a result of the quarantine. We have realised how vulnerable we can be to new diseases and we do not know what tomorrow holds. Among Indigenous Peoples, specifically those in isolation and initial contact, the loss of numerous members that COVID-19 could cause, and which is already being caused by other infectious diseases, also has a very profound emotional and psychological impact.

Most of the Indigenous Peoples have transmitted through oral history the devastating effect that diseases have had on their members and the interpretations that have derived from them, such as divine punishments. In an epidemic outbreak, the spiritual leaders of an Indigenous People can be severely affected, leading to demoralisation and disorientation for the population.

Diseases that are common to us, such as flu and diarrhoea, are highly harmful to Indigenous Peoples.

The trauma caused by the epidemics and the lack of knowledge of what the world faces, places the affected population in a vulnerable situation in relation to the surrounding population. In addition to this vulnerability, the broken physical, emotional and psychological conditions prevent them from continuing to carry out their subsistence practices and stock up on food, making them dependent on others, which has a direct impact on their health and autonomy.

Currently, the high morbidity and mortality rates existing in communities in initial contact due to the recurrence of diseases, place them at high risk. Their remoteness and the deficiencies of the State to take care of them (few or inefficient and ineffective interventions) compound their situation. Indigenous communities in isolation could also suffer the same fate. The State that owns the areas facilitates this risky situation by exploiting the "resources" existing in them; religious, tourism companies, researchers, state and private agents of programmes and social services. Added to this are the serious impacts that extractive activities cause on their territories and sources of subsistence, such as deforestation, predation, degradation and contamination.

Another view on isolation in the days of COVID-19

The pandemic caused by COVID-19 shows that in circumstances where humanity sees its existence and "its progress" endangered, it opts for social distancing. With the closure of borders and quarantine, in practice, this is a survival strategy of isolation. Social isolation as a weapon to protect oneself and the other, is understood as necessary and essential in order to avoid close contact, contact, infection and death. Isolation to live and learn to live in new conditions. Relations between people and the environment will probably no longer be the same as before the pandemic. The environment is changing, nature is recovering its balance. The change is expected to be for the better in the short and long term.

For Indigenous Peoples who opted for isolation, this strategy has contributed to their survival and that is why they defend it, just as most governments now defend social distancing to avoid the spread of the virus. The isolation of Indigenous Peoples is based on their right to decide on the way of life and level of interaction with the environment they wish to have, which in turn represents the exercise of their right to self-determination. History and current reality have shown us the negative effects that the processes of contact and forced integration can have on the physical integrity and continuity of Indigenous Peoples, and therefore international instruments for the defence of their rights, prohibit them.

It is necessary to rethink the interventions with these peoples, which, given the individual, collective and institutional deficiencies of those who carry them out, upset their integrity and endanger their future.

Essential actions to guarantee life

States should implement measures to guarantee the life and sociocultural continuity of Indigenous Peoples in isolation and initial contact.

  1. Respect their strategy of survival and way of life by distancing themselves from non-Indigenous society to prevent the spread of disease and avoid attack. This implies respecting their right to self-determination, in this case, their decision to live in isolation.
  2. Formally and effectively recognise the territorial rights of these peoples, granting legal security to the spaces they inhabit.
  3. Be consistent with the principle of right to life and subsistence, and respect for the right to self-determination, the intangibility of their territories must be guaranteed: prohibiting external presences, granting rights in favour of third parties and the carrying out of activities that violate this right.
  4. Implement mechanisms to prevent the spread of diseases under the principle of respect for isolation ("protective isolation"). If epidemics were to spread, it would be necessary to have a health system so efficient and effective that it prevents its expansion and consequences.

Photo: FUNAI

In the last 14 years, national norms and international instruments have been issued so that the States guarantee the right of these peoples to maintain their way of life and their self-determination. However, these rights have not been satisfactorily implemented, either by action, inaction or omission by the State: through the granting of rights to exploit natural resources within the Indigenous reserves created and by significantly accelerating the interactions with populations that maintained very sporadic relationships with the environment or lived in isolation.

There have also been no significant advances in the recognition of the territorial rights of these peoples. Worse still, by putting deadlines on Indigenous reserves and allowing activities of public interest to be carried out within them, the legislation on isolated peoples represents a major setback. In the framework of health policies, the implementation of mechanisms for preventing the spread of diseases is still very poor.

Faced with all these shortcomings that put the integrity and continuity of peoples in isolation and initial contact at risk, it is necessary to adopt a policy that is consistent and coherent with the principle of respect for their way of life and the right to self-determination, which is reflected in the institutional practice of the State and civil society. At the same time, the establishment of requested Indigenous reserves for these peoples is urgently needed over the areas they inhabit, travel and utilise.

Indigenous territories must have efficient protection systems, based on the principles of prevention, self-determination and intangibility

The disregard for these requests and the consequent lack of territorial protection have opened the floodgates, with the invasion by loggers and illegal activities such as drug trafficking. At the same time, the State has granted rights to exploit wood and hydrocarbons in its interior, even though it is not permitted to grant qualifying titles for the use of forest resources in the areas proposed as Indigenous reserves, whilst having information on the negative effects of hydrocarbon operations on these peoples.

Indigenous territories must have efficient protection systems, based on the principles of prevention, self-determination and intangibility that articulate the sectors and levels of government, peoples, Indigenous and non-Indigenous organisations of civil society involved. Also, the standard and technical health guidelines for prevention, mitigation and contingency against diseases that could affect peoples in isolation and initial contact must be implemented effectively and efficiently.

In conclusion

External presence in their territories, economic activities that alter their vital spaces and subsequent exposure confront Indigenous communities in isolation to attacks and contagion of diseases that can cause massive deaths. This is very serious.

The measures that would be required to avoid epidemics and attacks in Indigenous territories are clear and have been detailed in this article: respect for isolation and with it the right of these communities to decide on their ways of life, legal security over their territories, intangibility, and effective mechanisms to prevent, address, and mitigate the spread of disease.

Also of concern is the situation of Indigenous Peoples organised in native communities and suffering from malnutrition, chronic anaemia, and heavy metal contamination, as well as from deadly infectious diseases such as hepatitis B, tuberculosis, AIDS, malaria and dengue (the latter is severely affecting the Amazon and the Gran Chaco).

The COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to recognise the importance of isolation as a strategy for Indigenous survival

It is the institutional and moral duty of the State to curb the pressures and threats that attack the physical and sociocultural integrity of Indigenous Peoples. For this, it is necessary to guarantee respect for their ways of life and their right to self-determination.

The COVID-19 pandemic serves to reflect on and try to put ourselves in the place of communities in isolation who live with the latent threat of the arrival of epidemics for which they do not have adequate defences. It is an opportunity to recognise the importance of isolation as a strategy for Indigenous survival, and as a decision that needs to be respected.

This article was originally published in Spanish on DebatesIndigenas:


*Neptalí Cueva is a surgeon and former Director of the National Centre for Intercultural Health (CENSI). Beatriz Huertas is an anthropologist and consultant for Indigenous Peoples in isolation and initial contact for the Rainforest Foundation Norway and the Regional Organisation of Indigenous Peoples of the East (ORPIO).

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