Indigenous Peoples at increased risk due to coronavirus

  • Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Defenders are more at risk of being targeted, as movement is restricted and governments broaden laws
  • Already marginalised, Indigenous Peoples chronically lack proper access to health resources and information, further exacerbating the risk to their communities in times of emergency
  • Indigenous Peoples’ are responding to the pandemic using self-determined protection mechanisms


April 2, 2020.- As the spread of COVID-19 continues, Indigenous Peoples worldwide are in increasing danger of losing their lives and having their rights stripped away.

Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Defenders at Risk

Alongside the dangerous threat of the COVID-19 Pandemic, Indigenous Peoples are facing a second dangerous problem: the targeting of Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Defenders under cover of the disarray or scaling up of emergency measures.

“We are striving to be safe. The entire region of Luzon is under lockdown and we cannot move. Our organizations, networks and allies cannot mobilize and deploy a quick reaction response because of the prevailing lockdown. Those in control and command of the national action plan against COVID-19 are military generals – we fear the easy intensification of crackdown and widespread attacks against human rights defenders including indigenous peoples’ rights defenders,” Windel Bolinget, chairperson of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance, said.

In response to COVID-19, some countries have introduced or increased the presence of military and police in rural areas, where indigenous peoples live (1). IWGIA fears that these measures can be used to escalate violence in indigenous peoples’ territories and increase human rights violations.

The lack of access to communication and information further increases the risk of human rights violations, and that those violations can go undetected by monitoring and protection mechanisms and without anyone being held accountable.

As more areas become locked down, governments increase their powers through snap emergency legislation, and in some countries deploy military forces to implement the emergency legislation, meaning human rights defenders are at further risk as they cannot move around freely. Thus, these important defenders are easier to find, their emergency support network is harder to mobilise to protect themselves, and authorities continue to gain wider abilities to silence them.

“States have to ensure that the respect for and protection of human rights are at the centre of all responses to halt the spread of COVID-19. Terrible reports are coming from indigenous peoples’ organizations in countries across the world, on how governments are using the COVID-19 pandemic to tighten the grip on society and set human rights aside” IWGIA Executive Director Kathrin Wessendorf said.

In Colombia, the government has been accused of turning the blind eye when paramilitary groups are using the lock-down to hunt down activists and defenders to cold-bloodedly kill them.  “…in this quarantine they have already killed two Embera colleagues from the Municipality of Bolívar, Cauca Valley. In addition to this, the health centres, are not prepared to attend this Pandemic emergency that is increasing in Colombia. Families are experiencing despair, communities and indigenous peoples fear the coronavirus and attacks by armed actors at the same time during this quarantine” said Higinio Obispo Gonzalez, Secretary-General of the Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia – ONIC, one of IWGIA’s partner organizations in the country. “These actions have impacts on and threaten indigenous peoples’ physical and cultural survival due to the militarization measures towards the borders in all indigenous territories. This pandemic then becomes a perfect strategy to occupy the territories of the peoples and thus restrict freedom of movement, even within their territories.” Colombia is already one of the most dangerous countries in the world for activists and community leaders, and with the government focused on the pandemic, and normal security measures neglected, activists echo the statement of ONIC, that they are increasingly at risk (2).

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has in a recent call to States stressed that “emergency declarations based on the COVID-19 outbreak should not be used as a basis to target particular groups, minorities, or individuals. It should not function as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health nor should it be used to silence the work of human rights defenders”. (3)

Inadequate Health services and resources a key concern

History has demonstrated that diseases like COVID-19 can wreak havoc on Indigenous Peoples due to a variety of factors, from lack of access to infrastructure to lack of basic government services including vaccination (4). This is exacerbated by the fact that COVID-19 spreads fast, meaning it can tear through Indigenous communities with little built-up immunity.(5) These communities often rely on or live in tight-knit communities where resources and homes are shared, making the impact that much more overwhelming where strategies such as social distancing aren’t as viable.

Indigenous Peoples already face marginalisation and inadequate health services and information, including a lack of sufficient information in their languages, making it difficult for them to receive the proper care they need to either test and identify cases of infection or treat those who may become infected. Additionally, many communities often lack clean or sufficient water sources (6) either due to infrastructure or drought, meaning that one of the main measures in preventing the spread of the disease – washing one’s hands with soap – is a difficult preventative step for communities to take.

“We are in contact with our Indigenous partners every day who are telling us that communities are desperate and lack awareness about the virus and how to reduce their risk. Indigenous communities are on high alert as the situation develops. They know that pandemic-level diseases like this novel coronavirus can devastate their communities, which are highly susceptible to such outbreaks,” Wessendorf said. “Governments need to do more to ensure Indigenous Peoples receive the proper protection, resources and information they require to remain safe.”

Indigenous Peoples’ Self-protection Measures

Indigenous communities know very well that they are at risk and highly vulnerable both to human rights violations as well as to viral infections. They have for generations learned how to protect themselves to survive and thus be strong and resilient communities. Indigenous communities in Latin America, Asia and North America, before national governments took action, have already responded to the pandemic using their self-determined protection mechanisms and have taken advanced measures to seal off their villages or to retreat further into nature to avoid contact. Around the globe Indigenous people are proactively rising to the challenge to meet this critical need for information with radio/podcast communications disseminating COVID-19 information to their communities as well as precaution measures in Indigenous languages [vii]. For example, IWGIA´s partner in Latin America is reporting on prevention measures from different Indigenous communities throughout the continent, including in Quechua, the most widely spoken Indigenous language in the region, with up to 10 million speakers. (8)


(1) Interviews with Indigenous partner organisations, including ONIC, and in reference to Daniels, Joe Parkin. 2020. "Colombian Death Squads Exploiting Coronavirus Lockdown To Kill Activists". The Guardian, 2020.

(2) Ibid

(3) United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (UNOHCHR). 2020. "COVID-19: States Should Not Abuse Emergency Measures To Suppress Human Rights – UN Experts".

(4) See Center for Orang Asli Concerns “Kuala Koh Deaths: Non-recognition of Rights the Root Cause”, available at:

(5) To learn more about Indigenous Peoples living in isolation, read: Beier, Christine, and Beatriz Huertas Castillo. 2008. El Derecho A La Salud De Los Pueblos Indígenas En Aislamiento Y En Contacto Inicial. Copenhague: Grupo Internacional de Trabajo sobre Asuntos Indígenas. Available at: and Cueva, Neptalí, and Beatriz Huertas. 2020. "El Aislamiento: La Estrategia De Sobrevivencia Indígena Que Adoptó El Mundo". Debatesindigenas.Org.

(6) See ONAMIAP, Corona Virus in a country of inequality. Available at:

(7) See Demonstration of Handwashing steps in Marma language, for Marma ethnic population living in Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh.  Available at:

(8) 10 tips on how to help prevent coronavirus prepared and disseminated in the Quechua language:


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