April 7, 2020.- Many aspects contribute to the vulnerability and particular risk for Indigenous People in the context of the current COVID-19 pandemic. The following are voices speaking directly from different Indigenous communities on the impacts, concerns, and responses to the new challenges raised by the COVID-19 pandemic in Latin America.
Indianara Ramires, a nurse of the Guaraní Kaiowa people of the Dorado Reserve in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, speaks about various health risks:
“Indigenous peoples are one of the most exposed and vulnerable populations in the face of the current new coronavirus pandemic” says Indianara. “We are facing different situations of risk and vulnerability. Geographical, sanitary, linguistic and cultural aspects represents health-care difficulties that our population faces. I would like to add that here in Brazil, in the Amazons, there are 107 registered Indigenous Peoples living in isolation. If this pandemic reaches the people in isolated villages, it would be their annihilation.” (i)
The election of President Jair Bolsonaro in 2019 has resulted in major setbacks for Indigenous rights in Brazil. Bolsonaro has, throughout 2019, drastically reduced rural healthcare services and contributed to the critical situation Indigenous Peoples in the country stand for in the face of COVID-19. His politics caused withdrawal of hundreds of Cuban doctors staffed in many remote indigenous health facilities in the Brazilian Amazon and he has also hindered rural health care in other ways: 13,000 indigenous health workers have remained unpaid since February or April, depending on the region.(ii) Brazil has on April 1st the first reported case from an Indigenous person in a village deep in the Amazon rainforest.(iii)
“Even if the Brazilian Ministry of Health has developed the national contingency plan for human infection for the new COVID-19, in Indigenous communities we have chronic problems. For example, the lack of access to water. Many families in the community do not have access to suitable water at all. In this pandemic, one of the key strategies for reducing infection and preventing the spread of COVID-19 is to wash your hands with soap… States must prioritise and work with Indigenous Peoples as a risk group, taking into account our vulnerabilities” says Indianara. Beyond the challenges of access to water, comes secondary issues, including access to soap or other sundries.
The recurring issue for Indigenous people seeking to follow WHO´s precautionary measures, but not being able to apply them due to the structural inequalities they face, is preventing them from acting to contain and stop the spread of the pandemic. Historic and continuing trends of marginalisation and deep societal inequalities around the world remain a daunting barrier.Access to water has been recognised as a fundamental Human Right (iv), but unfortunately widespread recognition and adoption of this right, especially for several Indigenous communities, has been limited. In northern Argentina, Indigenous people have recently suffered from a powerful drought, leading to the tragic deaths of Indigenous children due to a cycle of marginalisation and lack of access to resources, including sufficient food leading to malnutrition.
Logoixé, leader of the Qom people in the province of Chaco in north Argentina, speaks about this issue of water:
“When we talk about protection, prevention [against COVID-19] ... We talk about water, because in this impenetrable part, here in Pampa del Indio, there is a lack of water. It has not been raining for two months, and there are many communities that totally lack this vitality. So, suddenly saying that a way to prevent this disease is to wash your hands with soap, and wash your hands well - when sometimes, many families barely have enough water to drink… There is a total lack of this basic need, being the issue of water.”
Water remains a core concern, but it is not the only major issue Indigenous Peoples face in enacting the advised preventative measures. Social distancing, curfews and lock-downs also pose specific risks to Indigenous Peoples due to their high representation in the informal workforce, marginalisation and lifestyle. Many Indigenous Peoples have a close, deep and rich communal lifestyle. It is one of the many self-protection measures that Indigenous communities rely on. As a result, social distancing can sometimes be nearly impossible. In regions where Indigenous communities have been pushed into slums, social distancing is recognised as a privilege of the middle class (v).
For others, the restrictions and curfew does feel a bit familiar. Curfew measures and increased military and police presence in these communities may lead to grave human rights violations.
Rubén Sánchez, Lonko of the Carimán Sánchez community in Mapuche territory of the Llancalil sector, Chile, shares:
“Regarding the curfew measures that the government has decreed, for the Mapuche people, we are in permanent curfew. The criminalisation process of the community by the Chilean state, is practically like a curfew.”
The response to COVID-19 further exacerbates the risks and criminalisation that Indigenous communities already face around the globe. It is a risky time for those protecting their human, territorial and autonomous rights as Indigenous Peoples. Rubén says that the communities are making their own decisions in the face of this situation. Further, he reflects that in this context of global crisis the importance of considering Indigenous issues and values, such as food sovereignty and solidarity practices are more essential than ever.
Albert Chan Dzul, from the Mayan community of Sahnacat, in Yucatan, Mexico, member of the U Yich Lu’um Interdisciplinary Center for Alternative Research and Development.He works on the issue of food sovereignty and emphasises the importance of traditional Indigenous values in this situation.
“We are working with our communities and with other nearby communities on the issue of agro-ecological production to strengthen food sovereignty” he says. “…It is an opportunity to motivate other people, other communities, as a way to deal with this type of situation.
Last, but not least, Albert gives some perspectives on an often overlooked consequence of this crisis, talking about the benefits of food sovereignty and contact with nature to nurture one’s mental health:
“So basically, we have animals, we have medicinal plants, we have crops. This also allows us to address an issue that is key in the reoccurrence of this type of event, which is the mental part, the mental health part” he says, adding that “the contact with nature, not just to be busy with something constantly, but to be in contact with the air, with the plants, with the birds… Gives the opportunity to clear your mind and stop thinking in catastrophic terms.”
Given the grave situation many Indigenous Communities face, it is important to reflect on their knowledge, their connection with their lands and territories and remember their wisdom to also help find peace of mind and resolve in facing the dire consequences of this pandemic. Hearing the voices, thoughts and challenges of Indigenous People regarding the COVID-19 pandemic is of great importance in order to not leave the marginalised behind.
(i) To read more about Indigenous Peoples living in voluntary isolation: http://www.debatesindigenas.org/notas/39-aislamiento-estrategia-de-pueblos-indigenas.html ; https://www.iwgia.org/es/recursos/publicaciones/317-libros/2826-el-derecho-a-la-salud-de-los-pueblos-indgenas-en-aislamiento-y-en-contacto-inicial.html
(ii) Borges, Thais & Branford, Sue "Amazon Indigenous Groups Feel Deserted By Brazil’S Public Health Service". Mongabay, 5 August 2019: https://news.mongabay.com/2019/08/amazon-indigenous-groups-feel-deserted-by-brazils-public-health-service/
(iii) Boadle, Anthony "Brazil Confirms First Indigenous Coronavirus Case In The Amazon". Reuters, 1 April 2020: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-brazil-indigenous/brazil-confirms-first-indigenous-coronavirus-case-in-the-amazon-idUSKBN21J66S.
(iv) Water was recognised as a human right in 2010 in Resolution 64/292: The human right to water and sanitation. United Nations. August 2010.
(v) Sur, Priyali and Mitra, Esha “Social distancing is a privilege of the middle class. For India's slum dwellers, it will be impossible”. CNN, 31 March 2020: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/03/30/india/india-coronavirus-social-distancing-intl-hnk/index.html