The CoViD-19 pandemic is impacting Indigenous peoples across the Americas who are already living under ongoing colonization, have poor access to health care, and suffer disproportionately from pre-existing conditions that compromise the immune system.
Coronavirus now has spread throughout the Indigenous Americas. The Navajo nation reported over 1,600 cases of COVID-19 and 59 deaths on the largest US reservation, which expands through Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Nineteen members of the Afro-indigenous Garifuna people living in New York City have died. The Garifuna are migrants from the Caribbean coast of Central America, hailing from Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
South of the U.S. border, iconic groups like the Kakchikel Maya in Guatemala, the Kuna in Panama, and the Yanomami of the Brazilian Amazon all have reported COVID-19 cases. Hugo Tacuri, President of CONAIP (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Peru), said: “Deaths are not recorded in Latin American cities by ethnicity and minorities are being mixed in with the greater population.” Tacuri said about 10% of the cases in Lima, Peru’s capital, were Quechua people, and a few were from the Amazon.
Native peoples in the early colonial period were decimated by diseases such as smallpox and measles. They lacked immunity to fight disease from outside and from European populations. As if through genetic memory, native peoples began extreme measures of social distancing soon after the coronavirus pandemic was reported in the Americas.
US and Canadian reservations went into lockdown and denied entrance to outsiders. Clément Chartier, leader of the Metís nation in Canada, commented, “we created check points along the road and established curfews.” Amazonian tribes in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru retreated deeper into the forest. A Brazilian tribe stopped missionaries aboard a helicopter, from entering their rainforest homeland.
Indigenous elders, valued for their knowledge and transmission of cultural ways, language, and traditions, are especially at risk from coronavirus. They pass on stories of past epidemics and the remedies to heal fever and respiratory illness. Indigenous peoples refuse to discard their grandparents and elders. Indeed, they are following their elders’ advice to self-isolate.
The Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast
Countries not preparing for the pandemic stand in violation of Indigenous rights. A recent New York Timesarticle cited Nicaragua as being one of three Latin American nations, along with Mexico and Brazil, to have ignored the pandemic and minimized its seriousness. Nicaragua, however, is one of the poorest nations in the Americas, and cannot afford to shut down its economy. Most Nicaraguans work in the informal economy–if they don’t work, they can’t eat. Nicaragua also has the lowest number of infections and deaths in Latin America: the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health (MINSA) only reports three deaths due to Covid-19.
Nicaragua’s ruling Sandinista regime recently sprang into action, blocking international flights into the Managua Airport, but their borders, businesses, and schools remain open. The Sandinista government now considers mandating rest in place and social distancing, as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The WHO also recognized the difficulty of populations living in poverty to quarantine.
Nicaragua’s most impoverished region, the pluri-ethnic Caribbean coast, is home to the Indigenous Miskitu, Mayangna, Ulwa, and Rama peoples, along with the Afro-descendant Kriols and Afro-indigenous Garifuna. The Caribbean coast ethnic groups are organizing to protect themselves from the virus, partially self-isolating and creating resources shared on social media in their own languages. In the Indigenous capital of Bilwi (pop. 185,000), many people live crowded together in households without running water, plumbing, or electricity. Those dwelling in remote forest communities are unable to reach hospitals.
Afro-descendant populations, like the Kriol and Garifuna in Nicaragua, have the pre-existing medical conditions of diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure. José Coleman, of the Indigenous Youth Organization of Moskitia—Mark Rivas (MOJIMM), stated that Nicaraguan Indigenous peoples “most commonly suffer from anemia, asthma, and cardiovascular illness.”
Anemia is brought on by malnutrition resulting from their poor diet, high in of carbohydrates and sugar. Amidst settler-colonization, food Insecurity also causes malnutrition within the Nicaraguan forest-dwelling populations. The Miskitu and Mayangna are afraid to leave their homes to go to their fields for subsistence activities. So far in 2020, armed colonists’ attacks have left nine Mayangna leaders and land-defenders dead in Las Minas, the mining region, and the UNESCO-designated Bosawas biosphere reserve.
Nicaragua’s health system is weak on the Caribbean coast. Despite excellent doctors, the Bilwi hospital suffers from a lack of infrastructure and investment–medical technology is antiquated and hospital rooms are hot with no fans or ventilation. The patients’ family members bring them food plates three times a day, similar to the Bilwi prisons.
Overcrowded hospitals, prisons, and markets are particularly concerning for the transmission of coronavirus on the Caribbean coast. The Miskitu and other coastal peoples in Nicaragua brace themselves for the impending epidemic.
Health Disparities and Indigenous Peoples Rights
Indigenous peoples have comparatively poor access to national health care systems, and suffer disproportionately from comorbidities, that is, pre-existing conditions or health-related complications that compromise the immune system.
In Canada, First Nations communities have a lower life expectancy and much higher mortality rates due to infant deaths and physical injuries. Indigenous youth are far more likely to experience psychological and emotional health complications, including chronic depression, all factors that are contributing to a suicide rate that is far higher among First Nation communities than the general population.
Central American Indigenous territories are subject to increasing encroachment from mestizo settlers and multinational industries causing water pollution and land degradation. In Honduras, food and water insecurity are sighted as the leading social determinants of health disparities, as illegal operations and mestizo settlers continue to invade Indigenous territories, carrying the risk of infecting them.
The Honduran Indigenous communities are also suffering disproportionately during the statewide shutdowns and COVID-19 confinement measures enforced by state authorities. The Tolupán and Maya Ch’orti’, among other Indigenous nations, have already reported severe food shortages and a chronic lack of access to basic goods. Since most Honduran Indigenous communities are made up of subsistence farmers, the unilateral restrictions imposed in public spaces mean that many families are unable to meet their daily nutrition needs. Furthermore, the widespread police brutality cases reported as part of the enforcement of those restrictive measures have created an atmosphere of increasing state-sponsored oppression of Indigenous communities, further eroding Indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination and consultation.
It is no secret that, in many places around the world, governments have taken unfair advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to advance policies that are harmful to Indigenous peoples. In the Canadian province of British Columbia, for instance, the Coastal GasLink Pipeline is forging ahead through Wet’suwet’en “unceded territory” without First Nations consent and in spite of widespread public outcry. The oil sands industry is not only threatening to pose a major ecological threat, but it also presents a major risk for the spread of COVID-19. First Nations peoples have collectively put pressure on Ottawa to stop the construction of the pipelines immediately, but whether or not the government will heed their urgent request remains to be seen.
Human Rights, which include Indigenous Peoples Rights, must not be overlooked, particularly during current health crisis, and when Indigenous peoples are at a great economic and social disadvantage as a result of longstanding systematic discrimination by state institutions. States have a responsibility to ensure equal access to public services to all their citizens, free from discrimination.
Governments must consult Indigenous leadership and community members in good faith regarding any intervention and decision liable to impact their communities. This is precisely why the right to consultation and the right to participation are the two fundamental pillars of international standards for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as highlighted by United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and required under Articles 6 and 7 of the ILO Convention 169. Consultation is needed to achieve Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC). Governments are held to international law regarding any intervention and decision-making that may impact Indigenous territories. This necessity does not change with the current crisis.
Many Indigenous nations, for instance, have long had their own methods of preventative health care based on a variety of native plant medicines. In northwestern Honduras, the Maya Ch’orti’ peoples and other groups regularly rely on locally grown plant medicine to boost their immune systems against common diseases. Medicinal plants, in many cases, have been proven to have tremendous health benefits. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), for one, recommends an intercultural approach to working with Indigenous peoples, meaning that medical interventions in Indigenous communities should respect and incorporate traditional knowledge and medicine as a viable form of healthcare.
During a two-part conference organized by the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC), titled Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples in the Time of COVID-19, Navaho elder Chili Yazzie and other leaders called on the human family to come together and correct our destructive tendencies. Socially and morally irresponsible overexploitation of the environment makes the world population susceptible to natural disasters like pandemics. As elders like Chili Yazzie postulate, COVID-19 teaches us that we should balance our needs with the sustainability of the ecosystem and live in union with our planet.
Indigenous nations around the world provide us with examples of sustainable living. Their ways of life provide us with a vivid alternative to the current corporate-centric world order. Indigenous peoples also are custodians of some the world’s last remaining biospheres. Now is the time for international communities to act, to promote environmental sustainability worldwide in conjunction with Human Rights.
The world that we have taken for granted for too long will either be one, or not at all.
The United States of America was founded on stolen land. The legacy of violence, discrimination, and criminal disregard for indigenous people continues today.
April 7, 2020
The undersigned Indigenous peoples and organizations write this letter to denounce the discriminatory response to COVID-19 and express our deep concern of the situation faced by hundreds of thousands of diverse Indigenous peoples of the immigrant community in the United States (U.S.), those in detention centers under the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), those survivingin makeshift camps on the northern Mexico border under the U.S. government’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), who are being systematically excluded in the COVID-19 pandemic response mechanisms.
We recognize that the global COVID-19 pandemic is affecting people indiscriminately. However, we highlight that the most vulnerable are the most affected and devastated by this pandemic: those living inextreme poverty and chronic malnutrition who are unable to access or pay for medical care, the undocumented, and those with limited English and/or Spanish languages, as they cannot understand the information about COVID-19 and/or express their medical and financial needs during this pandemic.
The lack of recognition of our Indigenous identity and the exclusion of our languages at the local, national, and international levels puts our lives at risk, threatens the survival of our People, and violates our rights of self-determination, autonomy and to be free from any kind of discrimination.
Language exclusion is illegal due to Executive Order 13166 regulating access to services provided to Persons with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) by federal departments, their agencies and the organizations contracted by them.
The Departments of Homeland Security (DHS), Health and Human Services (HHS), and The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) of The United States Department of State (DOS) program etc., are excluding our peoples and communities at the Southern border and throughout the U.S.
Specifically, the rights established in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), describe the minimum human rights standards such as the right to revitalize and use our languages (Art. 13), establish and use the media in our own languages (Art. 16), the right to better economic and social conditions, such as health, (Art. 21) and the right to determine and develop priorities in all areas, including health (Art. 23).
We are deeply concerned that these minimum standards are not met and as a result, our peoples are being excluded from essential information and services to survive the Pandemic.
The continued lack of information in Indigenous languages predisposes our peoples, an already extremely vulnerable group, to more difficulties and health impacts. We face the exclusion of our Indigenous languages, as well as the lack of recognition of our existence, resulting in dangerous consequences for our peoples and our survival. As background, the deaths of five Maya children at the facilities of the Border Patrol (BP) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) before the pandemic indicates, unfortunately, what wecan expect.
Faced by this situation, we Indigenous peoples and organizations are organizing and articulating efforts to respond to the needs and priorities of our peoples in our own geographic regions and at the national level. Asan example, we are creating materials in Indigenous languages with Public Service Announcement videos on notices, public services, and information about COVID-19, printed materials, and cards that identify our primary language (I speak cards).
However, we are deeply concerned that our peoples, who constitute a large majority in the public services sector in urban and rural areas (for example, agriculture, construction, domestic services, and cleaning); mostly undocumented, without health insurance and those living in poverty, are not being adequately informed about resources and services at this time. For example, being informed of where to find food and health centers and/or access to computers for distance learning for their sons and daughters in their respective locations. We are concerned that most members of our community are unable to benefit from local, regional and national programs and services due to their legal status.
We express our outrage because in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our community continues to suffer deportations, family separations, immigration raids, and the lack or null attention in cases of people in detention with contagion of the virus under the responsibility of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The criminalization of our communities will only increase fear and panic and will unnecessarily contribute to dangerous conditions resulting in the further spread of COVID-19 perpetuating genocide against Indigenous peoples, a genocide that has a long and dark history in the United States, and throughout the Americas.
FACED BY THIS SITUATION, WE REQUEST THE SUPPORT TO INDIGENOUS PEOPLES AND ORGANIZATIONS, ANDTOOUR INDIGENOUS PROPOSAL BEFORE COVID-19
First, that the local, municipal, state and federal governments consult with our organizations and peoples to learn about our existence and needs.
Second, that the different government agencies support strategies already led by Indigenous peoples rooted in our experience and knowledge of the needs and priorities identified by our own peoples and communities.
Third, financial support:
Any legislation to provide COVID-19 relief and the benefits derived from such legislation must be accessible to Indigenous peoples.
The Interpretation of COVID-19 services and benefits legislated by Congress at the end of March 2020 in Indigenous languages.
Technical support to our organizations for our Educational Campaigns on COVID-19.
The creation of a communication mechanism / platform such as a telephone line and a website aimed for Indigenous peoples in priority languages so that they are aware of the resources available to them.
Fourth, the assignment of contact people between government agencies and our organizations to support prevention, mitigation, and monitoring of COVID-19, and the exchange of community and government resources.
During this time of crisis for humanity, we unite as one voice and express our concerns, but also our recommendations to meet the needs of our peoples, who survive their respective realities based in our languages, traditions, worldview and experiences.
Together, valuing and respecting the diversity of all our communities, peoples and cultures, we will be able to respond to the needs of our peoples and future generations.
Ben Warner relates the coronavirus pandemic to the wetiko disease, what Jack Forbes calls “a spiritual sickness with a physical vector”—the disease of colonization.
By Ben Warner
A virus has been infecting humanity for centuries and it threatens all life on earth. This virus of selfishness is named Wetiko by many indigenous Americans. It is a form of psychosis, an infection of the mind and spirit that allows the creation of this cannibalistic culture often called Western Civilisation.
“Now, were Columbus and his fellow European exploiters simply “greedy” men whose “ethics”were such as to allow for mass slaughter and genocide? I shall argue that Columbus was a wétiko, that he was mentally ill or insane, the carrier of a terribly contagious psychological disease, the wétiko psychosis. The Native people he described were, on the other hand, sane people with a healthy state of mind. Sanity or healthy normality among humans and other living creatures involves a respect for other forms of life and other individuals, as I have described earlier. I believe that is the way people have lived (and should live). The wétiko psychosis, and the problems it creates, have inspired many resistance movements and efforts at reform or revolution. Unfortunately, most of these efforts have failed because they have never diagnosed the wétiko as an insane person whose disease is extremely contagious.”
Although Covid-19 is not “the cure” as some misanthropes claim, it does expose some truths, allowing us time to identify the real problems and reflect on ways to build an effective resistance to solve it.
What kind of culture needs a virus that attacks the respiratory system to force it to make behavioral changes that reduce levels (in China, the UK, Australia and worldwide) of nitrogen dioxide, a gas that increases the likelihood of respiratory problems? The decline of air pollution over China is estimated to have saved 77,000 lives.
What kind of culture needs a respiratory virus to save people from choking to death on the poison it produces? A wetiko culture.
While reports of nature and dolphins returning to the ancient city of Venice were exaggerated, why did the tweet that started it become viral? Why did so many people love the idea that nature might be reclaiming one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations?
It is likely that globalized capitalism caused this pandemic. What other form of human organization would lead to a marketplace selling highly-stressed animals, thus creating the conditions for a virus to cross the species barrier? Even if the virus originated in America, as some claim, it was spread by globalized transport. What other system would create the trade links and transportation to allow this virus to spread rapidly?
There is a strong likelihood of more viruses emerging with every bit of nature we destroy. Industrial civilization is the only human culture that extinguishes biodiversity at such an unprecedented level that it makes mass pandemics almost inevitable.
In a sane and healthy culture families forced to stay at home due to a disaster would not fear violence from members of their own household. In the Wetiko infected culture we have already seen an increase of men inflicting domestic violence (worldwide, France, the UK, the USA, South Africa) on the women and children they should be caring for. This culture of dominance is one we should all reject. By objectifying every being and viewing them simply as resources to be consumed; women, forests and all of wild nature become resources to be used, abused, tortured and killed.
Medical experts predicted this crisis. Governments and the ruling class knew what was coming, but did not meaningfully try to stop it. They simply planned the best way they could extract capital from it. They asked themselves how they could turn the virus and its consequences into a resource. This neoliberalcabal, includes the World Economic Forum (an organization which only represents leading global companies) and, which is now in partnership with the United Nations and World Health Organization. The response to this crisis is being controlled by global corporations. Do you think they care about you, or their profit margins?
The global elite tell us “we are all in this together.” If that is true then why did Prince Charles and Boris Johnson get tested when displaying mild symptoms? Meanwhile our nurses and doctors remain untested. The authorities are using this pandemic as an excuse to take away our rights and force us to comply with their agenda. How exactly have the authorities provided the services you need?
Consequences of Economic Shutdown
The community-strengthening sectors such as; arts and culture, local markets and small businesses have been forced to close and are unlikely to survive. They could be taken over by multinationals or simply disappear. Sectors that serve capital (finance, big tech, mining, construction, energy, industrial agriculture etc.) either continue unabated with their destruction or will be revived and bailed out when the lockdown ends. In fact promises of bailouts have already started.
Working class people cannot work from home. They have to work to stock the supermarket shelves and make sure we have food to eat. Most of these people are women, so once again, poor women will suffer the most. The majority of the global poor do not have access to healthcare and are starving to death amid food shortages (the Philippines, India)
It is likely that after this pandemic, governments and the global elite will implement the green new deal. This will not benefit the environment nor will it benefit poor communities. It will benefit the corporate sector. What is happening currently may have far reaching implications; we may never return to normal. We are already seeing countries pass laws to force medical treatments on patients who do not want them. In some countries (e.g. Sweden) there has already been microchipping of people. It is voluntary at the moment, but for how long? Elsewhere there is evermore increased, intrusive surveillance. People are being fined thousands of dollars for simply leaving their homes. Some medical professionals are advocating for infrared-visible tattoos for those who have been vaccinated—a procedure with unknown effects on health and privacy. Could we see governments make this compulsory?
It is hardly surprising that with at least 200 species going extinct each day we are fast approaching the 6th mass extinction. What else can we expect from a culture ruled by psychopaths?
Covid-19 provides the privileged with a frightening glimpse of what many face in the present and what we are very likely to face on an increasing scale in the future. Panic buying, massmigrations, starvation, reduction or complete loss of civil freedoms, social unrest and nations switching from fake democracies (inverted totalitarianism) to outright dictatorships. As species extinction, soil depletion and climate change continue to accelerate we could all face a more extreme version of this.
What Can We Do?
In this culture, there are people who value (and hold) power and money over relationships and love. By taking a bird’s eye view we can remember the importance of building communities and take decisive, effective action. Those of us who value relationships and love rather than money and power need to prepare ourselves. We need to help others prepare. While the media propagates panic, we need to organize collectively.
We must engage with every form of effective resistance. We need to talk with each other. We need to be united. We must collaborate with others whenever we share a common goal. Here are some specific examples.
Go On Strike
In late 2019 and early 2020, striking French electrical workers cut off the power to major corporations, including Amazon and government agencies. Previous French strikes have seen transport workers park trucks across the entrance to oil refineries and ports, shutting them down. We can learn from the French workers’ unions. A strategic general strike could shut down whole industries.
Build Community Defense Networks and Practice Discipline and Skills
Neighborhood organizing. The military and the police serve the interests of the ruling class. We should keep them out of our neighborhoods by forming our own defense forces and patrols. Emphasizing community safety and mutual aid. We should confront, record and prevent racist policing. This is one way to create a sense of neighborhood sovereignty. Refuse to report on your neighbors, instead help each other out. Defend small business and community infrastructure, drive out industries exploiting neighborhood land and labor, and resist corporate takeover.
Engage in Rent Strikes and Debt Strikes
The economy doesn’t need our labor, as evidenced by, the UK government paying people not to work. To continue the economy needs us as consumers. We could stop paying rent and paying off our debts. We could boycott the economy altogether and provide for our own needs from a land base. We have the collective power to take down the economic system.
Create Mutual Aid Systems and Local Food
We could grow food together, providing for others in our neighborhoods. Get to know neighbors in person. We need to abandon any belief that the government will provide for us and start providing for ourselves. As millions of people lose their jobs, they will see that the money economy does not serve us. This could promote opportunities to explore localized economies that do not depend on money and the global economy.
Learn and Teach Practical Skills
Offer skill shares such as food production, permaculture, maintenance and repair, crafts, direct democracy, local culture, arts and healing. All these skills can be learnt and taught. Learning together strengthens community and supports neighborhood well-being.
Raise Awareness About Political Issues and Revolutionary Analysis
Increase understanding about where political power is held, and how it is being exercised. It is in globalist institutions (World Economic Forum, World Bank, United Nations, International Monetary Fund) and Big Tech. It is not in regional, national or local governments. Power is being exercised electronically, including through surveillance, it need not be exercised overtly.
The more organized we can be in building resistance, in localizing economies, the easier it will be for everyone. Global economic collapse is inevitable. Bringing it about and/or supporting transition is important work. We can find vulnerabilities in the structure, as the French Union workers did. We can start conversations to consider the possibility of life without electricity as an option. Without it the ruling class have fewer ways to extend power over us. We could support direct action to target the electricity grid and shut down the energy industry.We could be at the point in history when revolution to overthrow capitalism is inevitable. We need to be ready.
Ben Warner is a longtime guardian with DGR, a teacher, and an activist.
Disclaimer: This article was based on information and evidence available at the time of writing. The situation is changing quickly. Please, post links to anything you believe is relevant in the comments section, so the article can be updated as necessary. The links and questions in this article invite you to seek answers for yourself, engage critical thinking and investigate. You may not agree with everything. However, now more than ever, we need to collaborate and unite for revolutionary change, whenever and wherever we can.
There is a family of bacteria dwelling in soil, in water.
Some reside in the bodies of cows. Humans domesticate cows, for meat, milk, labor.
Cows are corralled in large groups, in small spaces, near to human settlements. The bacteria, disturbed by the upset of their microbial life-ways, shift their behavior. Now they move quickly between cows, they become more aggressive. Cows get sick.
Increased human-cow contact allows bacteria to pass from bovine into human bodies, and adapt to their newfound hosts. Humans build cities, into whose crowded centres ever more people migrate, to live breathing a grey swill of fumes, eating poorly, labouring to exhaustion in cramped, lightless, unventilated factories.
Going home to rundown tenements on piled garbage streets. It is the dawn of the glorious new Industrial Age, and in their great cities, humans are coughing blood. A bacterial disease is diagnosed: tuberculosis.
Over a century later, it continues to quietly fell over a million of the world’s poor each year.
There is a virus in the bellies of wild ducks, harmless to the birds. As ducks fly pond to pond they shed the virus into water, infecting other birds, who fly to other ponds, infecting yet more birds.
Humans domesticate ducks and begin raising them in captivity. Birds in cages have no ponds to fly to, so the virus cannot reproduce itself as it once did—it must change its habits. It adapts.
Now, it transmits rapidly between birds. It grows more virulent, since it no longer needs a living host: in captivity, healthy birds cannot flee the dying. The virus learns flexibility. It infects.
Soldiers are packed into squalid barracks, undernourished, cold and damp. Their immune systems exhausted by the stresses of combat. Outside the trenches, humans live in greater density, in closer proximity, in larger cities than ever before.
Many are recovering from immunity-battering bouts of measles, tuberculosis. A formerly innocuous bird virus spills into human bodies as a formidable pathogen. It spreads person to person across the earth’s surface until one-third of the total human population is ill. 50 million are estimated dead.
It is the Flu of 1918, the deadliest pestilence in human history.
There is a virus, its natural reservoir a small, insect-eating bat whose home is the forest. The forests are shrinking. Human cities go on expanding, there are more factories, more farms where humans store their captive legions of birds and pigs.
The bats’ habitat is fragmented by deforestation. The stress of that loss strains the sensitive animals’ immune systems, exciting the expression of a latent virus. Flying through what remains of the forest, stressed bats shed the virus. Now other animals are infected.
Humans hunt and trap wild animals and sell them at urban wildlife markets. The concentration of different animal species creates a fertile medium for viral recombination. Sustained human-animal contact grants adventuresome viruses access to human hosts.
At a wildlife market in a city with a population of millions in one of the world’s most polluted regions, a virus strays from a caged animal into a human body. Commercial air travel has made it possible for humans to cross oceans overnight.
They take with them whatever microbes their bodies harbor. A new viral disease emerges, within months it has spread across continents. The human death count steadily rises.
Covid-19 is one in a series of infectious diseases to unsettle the standard operating procedures of human societies. Disease has been civilization’s consort since our earliest history. Yet we are stunned by Covid-19, as if the concept of disease were alien—an “unprecedented event.” In a state of emergency, there is a forgetting, an attenuation of vision. Drifting out of focus goes the context of the emergency, the history, patterns, reoccurrences of emergencies. As ecofeminist philosopher Susan Griffin writes, “Whatever is in the background disappears in the focus of a gunsight.”
The mass media pandemic-panic and governments’ wartime rhetoric manipulate public perception. It amplifies anxiety, training that anxiety on an illusory “invisible enemy.” To exist in the state of emergency is torture for a public desperate for relief. So people are inclined to suspend reflection and accept the solutions handed down by those in power.
Fear disorients, distracts; it drives reactionary behavior dictated by the volatility of cortisol. Panic, once seeded, has a virality to rival any contagion. We materialize our imaginings into reality, by acting as if the worst-case scenarios have already arrived. Sirens scream. A stricken public rush to the supermarkets to prepare for imminent collapse. People panic buy toilet paper, creating a shortage. The emergency oozes through screens into everyday life as something palpable for all to experience, regardless of the facts of the outbreak. Panic intensifies, not helped by the authorities repeatedly blasting “This is an EMERGENCY”.
We are assured! We have the help of Biotech firms, hard at work on a vaccine. Billions of tax dollars paid out to prop up struggling corporations. We are assured, we will defeat this plasmid-coated adversary. The Virus will be vanquished. Crisis averted, emergency over, release the balloons, return to work, resume business as usual. Humanity has triumphed.
It is a habit of the Western mind to imagine that human existence is isolated from the natural world. That we can eat our way through the earth’s resources, laying waste to the environment without doing harm to ourselves. If the story of emerging viruses in the 20th-21st centuries has a moral, it is that human independence from the natural world is a delusion. Human health is contingent upon the health of the biosphere. When we brutalize the earth, we foreclose upon our own survival. Our actions enabled the spread of new pathogens. The structures and systems of our civilization have entrenched widespread susceptibility to infectious disease.
Anthropogenic environmental degradation is a precondition for disease susceptibility. This is evidenced by the high Covid-19 mortality rates in regions with poor air quality. Before Italy and Iran became coronavirus hotspots, they drew headlines for the deadly repercussions of unbreathable air. In China, ambient air pollution kills upwards of a million people annually.
As for the epicenters of Covid-19 mortality in the U.S, “Air Quality Health Advisory” ozone warnings are a summertime tradition in New York City. Louisiana boasts Cancer Alley. An 85-mile stretch of air-poisoning oil refineries and petrochemical plants along the Mississippi River. The same human systems that maximize vulnerability to disease make our societies unfit to respond effectively. In the U.S. the privatized, (for-profit) healthcare system has proven itself predictably useless under the pressure of a pandemic. There is no infrastructure in place for systematic testing. There are shortages of hospital beds, ventilators, nasal swabs and respirator masks. We are expected to be thankful that the biotech industry is highly motivated ( by money) to make a vaccine to save us.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government, in a bipartisan Disaster Capitalism trick lifted directly from Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, has made hay while the sun of chaos shines. A $2.2 trillion package of handouts and loans will be distributed to corporations (airlines, the Pentagon and weapons manufacturers, industrial agriculture). For $1,200 each (per average-earning citizen) we are happy to subsidize corporate profiteering, warfare, environmental devastation.
The EPA has announced it will besuspending enforcement of pollution monitoring and reporting laws for the duration of the pandemic. There is no end date in sight. There is little consideration for pollution causing respiratory illness, which exacerbates the risk posed by Covid-19 . The U.S. is not alone in this. China has indicated it will be “modifying” environmental laws to hasten economic recovery now that its own Covid-19 crisis is cooling. Rejecting the panic driven amnesia, we can understand the connections now. The patterns from the present crisis to its predecessors. We can see that disease pandemics trace back to human actions and human systems. With tuberculosis and the Flu of 1918, it was the domestication of animals that spawned viral emergence. With Covid-19, it was progressive ruination of ecosystems and the commodification of wild creatures. Where we unbalance the natural world, we create ecological distress and disease. And once we are sick, it is social factors – industrialization, war, global capitalism, that raise death tolls. It was as true with tuberculosis as it was with the Flu of 1918 as it is with Covid-19.
The gravest threat to humanity is not any pathogen, but the diseased state of human civilization. Vulnerability to Covid-19 is predicted by preexisting chronicillness: diabetes, COPD, heart disease, liver disease, obesity and asthma. People with immune systems suppressed by pharmaceuticals and environmental toxins are also at higher risk. These conditions are the “diseasesof civilization”. The upshot of human lifestyles disfigured by consumer capitalism.
Chronic disease is an off shoot of patterns of industrialised labor and consumption, the foods and intoxicants with which we overload our bodies chasing “fullness” and “pleasure”. We experience an accumulation of stress in toxic environments riddled with sexism, racism, poverty and the colonial mindset: the backdrop of industrial production. Although these conditions are endemic: it is indigenous people, people of colour, women and the poor who endure thehighestincidence of affliction. The dispossessed will suffer most when confronted with infectious diseases such as Covid-19. The virus will flourish in bodies undermined by societal cruelties.
Demonizing a microbe as humanity’s nemesis scapegoats the natural world. This nurtures blindness to Covid-19’s background; the social history of infectious disease. If we pause, breathe, attempt a calmer review of context and history, what is revealed is that it is not The Virus, nor any pathogen, that threatens our continued life on earth. Human action precipitated the emergence of Covid-19. Humans razed the forests. Humans captured wild animals to sell at market. Humans squired a formerly harmless virus out into the world as a virulent pathogen. Human societies decimate the environment to glut the coffers of transnational corporations. To meet the insatiable demands of First World consumers, we collided with microbes once held within the fortifications of wild nature. Robust ecosystems. The unviolated bodies of animals. Like the virus of the hour, Junin, Machupo, Lassa and Ebola all spilled from wildlife into humans as a byproduct of deforestationand development. Novel flu strains continuously arise out of Confined Animal Feeding Operations, where humans warehouse domesticated animals in increasingly careless industrial conditions.
The world is comprised of microorganisms. To ‘wage war’ against microbes is folly. Infection and illness are inevitabilities beyond human control. So too is death. The social, cultural, structural pathologies that provoke viral emergence and needless mass suffering are our own inventions . It is in our power to remedy them. Protection from future pandemics is possible, but it’s not an antiseptic wipe, a face mask, a million ventilators, a vaccine, Medicare-for-All. It is preventing the viruses from emerging, by ending our violence against the natural world. We all, humans and non-humans, thread together within the delicate, interlacing of connections that binds us to the living earth. If we were guided by our deep knowledge of interdependence, rather than by fantasies of human detachment, we would not plunder as we do now. We would not be so reckless. We would know in our bodies that the destruction of the earth is self-destruction.
Protection from catastrophes of our own making are possible, yes, but only with a radical transformation of human civilization; the totality of global systems and institutions, including how we live and how we think. The human species will survive Covid-19, but without change, alignment to the natural world, there will be another virus, another pandemic culling of an impaired population, and another after that. One day, the earth we have blighted will have done with us.
aurora linnea is a librarian and ecofeminist pariah living near the Atlantic Ocean.
Editor’s note: The FPIC (Free, prior and informed consent) and UNDRIP (UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) are international standards, that some companies have adopted into their policies. The FPIC is an international human rights principle that protect peoples’ rights to self-determination. UNDRIP delineates and defines the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples. Both of these are important principles that improve the sovereignty of indigenous peoples. However, neither of these are legally binding, which has disastrous outcomes.
Companies and countries alike are bypassing these principles in favor of profitable ventures, most recent of which are clean energy projects.
Right now, companies that advance the “clean” energy transition are threatening the land and the livelihoods of indigenous peoples and peasants. Demand for minerals like copper and lithium is skyrocketing, as every economic sector is being transitioned towards the fourth industrial revolution. But indigenous peoples need to have their right to a say in decisions affecting to their land. Ecosystems and people living with the land are being victimized to serve an economy that is desperately trying to save itself from collapsing.
When Francisco Calí Tzay, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, spoke at the 22nd United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, or UNPFII, last week, he listed clean energy projects as some of the most concerning threats to their rights.
“I constantly receive information that Indigenous Peoples fear a new wave of green investments without recognition of their land tenure, management, and knowledge,” said Calí Tzay.
His statements — and those made by other delegates — at what is the world’s largest gathering of Indigenous peoples, made clear that without the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous people, these “green” projects have the capacity to seriously impede on Indigenous rights.
Free, prior and informed consent — known as FPIC — has always been an important topic at the UNPFII, but this year it’s taken on a renewed urgency.
Mining projects and carbon offsets put pressure on indigenous groups
“The strong push is because more and more of climate action and targets for sustainable development are impacting us,” said Joan Carling, executive director of Indigenous Peoples Rights International, an Indigenous nonprofit that works to protect Indigenous peoples’ rights worldwide.
Indigenous peoples around the world are experiencing the compounding pressures of clean energy mining projects, carbon offsets, new protected areas and large infrastructure projects on their lands as part of economic recovery efforts in the wake of Covid-19, according to The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs 2023 report.
Green colonialism threatens ecosystems
As states around the world trend towards transitioning to “clean” energy to meet their national and international climate goals, the demand for minerals like lithium, copper, and nickel needed for batteries that power the energy revolution are projected to skyrocket. The demand could swell fourfold by 2040, and by conservative estimates could pull in $1.7 trillion in mining investments.
Although Indigenous delegates say they support “clean” energy projects, one of the issues is their land rights: more than half of the projects extracting these minerals currently are on or near lands where Indigenous peoples or peasants live, according to an analysis published in Nature.
This can lead to their eviction from territories, loss of livelihoods, or the deforestation and degradation of surrounding ecosystems.
“And yet […] we are not part of the discussion,” said Carling. “That’s why I call it green colonialism — the [energy] transition without the respect of Indigenous rights is another form of colonialism.”
Companies and governments don’t abide by communities
Because of this, delegates are calling on countries and companies to create binding policy and guidelines that require FPIC for all projects that affect Indigenous peoples and their lands, as well as financial, territorial and material remedies for when companies and countries fail to do so.
However, there is some push back. The free prior, informed consent process can lead to a wide variety of outcomes including the right for communities to decline a highly profitable project, which can often be difficult for countries, companies and investors to abide by, explains Mary Beth Gallagher, the director of engagement of investment at Domini Impact Investments, who spoke at a side event on shareholder advocacy.
Indigenous Sámi delegates from Norway drew attention to their need for legally enforceable FPIC protection as they continue to protest the Fosen Vind Project, an onshore wind energy complex on Sámi territory, that the country’s Supreme Court ruled violated their rights.
“We have come to learn the hard way that sustainability doesn’t end colonialism,” said a Sámi delegate during the main panel on Tuesday.
Across the globe indigenous peoples face eviction
In the United States, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, the People of Red Mountain and members of the Fort McDermitt Tribe filed lawsuits against the federal Bureau of Land Management for approving the permits for an open-pit lithium mine without proper consultation with the tribes. In the Colombian Amazon, the Inga Indigenous community presented a successful appeal for lack of prior consultation from a Canadian company that plans to mine copper, molybdenum and other metals in their highly biodiverse territory.
While delegates put a lot of emphasis on the lack of FPIC, they put equal emphasis on FPIC as a crucial part of the long-term sustainability of energy projects.
“FPIC is more than just a checklist for companies looking to develop projects on Indigenous lands,” said Carling. “It is a framework for partnership, including options for equitable benefit sharing agreements or memorandum of understanding, collaboration or conservation.”
The focus at this year’s conference has emphasized the growing role of FPIC in the private sector. Investors and developers are increasingly considering the inclusion of FPIC into their human rights due diligence standards. Select countries such as Canada have implemented UNDRIP in full, although First Nation groups have pointed out irregularities in how it is being implemented. The European Union is proposing including specific mandatory rights to FPIC in its corporate sustainability due diligence regulation. Side events at the UNPFII focused on topics like transmitting FPIC Priorities to the private sector and using shareholder advocacy to increase awareness of FPIC.
Gallagher of Domini Impact Investments said companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, which includes FPIC: “If they have a human rights commitment or they have a commitment in their policies not to do land grabs, we have to hold them to account for that.”
Indigenous leadership at the center of negotiations
In 2021, the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, published an expectation that companies “obtain (and maintain) the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous peoples for business decisions that affect their rights.” Large banks like Credit Agricole have included FPIC in their corporate social responsibility policy. But in most cases, even when companies have a FPIC policy it doesn’t conform to the standard outlined in UNDRIP and is not legally binding.
“It doesn’t do the work it’s supposed to do to protect self-determination,” said Kate Finn, director at First Peoples Worldwide. “It becomes a check-the-box procedure that’s solely consultations and stakeholder consultation instead of protection of rights and self-determination.”
“If communities aren’t giving their consent, a company has to respect that,” said Gallagher, who added “There’s obviously points of tension where investors have different agendas and priorities but ultimately, it’s about centering Indigenous leadership and working through that.”
Not properly abiding by FPIC can be costly to companies in countries that operate where it is a legal instrument. It comes with risks of losing their social operation to license, and financial damages. According to a study by First Peoples Worldwide, Energy Transfer and the banks that financed the now-completed Dakota Access Pipeline, lost billions due to construction delays, account closures, and contract losses after they failed to obtain consent from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the United States.
Ultimately, Indigenous people need to be part of decision-making from the beginning of any project, especially “clean” energy projects mining for transition minerals on their territories, said Carling. “For us, land is life, and we have a right to decide over what happens on our land.”
Banner by Carolina Caycedo. Lithium Intensive, 2022. Color pencil on paper. Courtesy of the artist.