Indigenous Peoples in the age of COVID-19

Indigenous Peoples in the Age of COVID-19

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.


by Laura Hobson Herlihy and Daniel Bagheri Sarvestani / Intercontinental Cry

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 Times article 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.

Because Indigenous peoples are disproportionately vulnerable to the pandemic, the International Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples in Latin America and Caribbean (FILAC) recently stated that countries should have a plan to support ethnic groups in dealing with COVID-19. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) also published a list of recommendations to defend Indigenous rights during the pandemic.

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.

One thought on “Indigenous Peoples in the Age of COVID-19”

  1. “Indigenous peoples have poor access to health care.” Not to throw cold water on an excellent article, but it’s also fair to say that if we were to succeed in eliminating civilization, we would ALL have poor access to conventional health care, because there wouldn’t be any.

    The last part of the article addresses that somewhat, noting that the UN recommends incorporating traditional medicine when administering health care in indigenous communities.

    That, of course, depends on the traditional medicine. Much of it is valid and highly beneficial (e.g., mushrooms, hemp oil, seaweed, garlic, ginger, cayenne, etc.) while other practices — such as Asian beliefs in treating hangovers with rhino horn, impotence with tiger penis, and other ailments with bear gall bladders — are nothing but ignorant, self-indulgent superstitions, which serve no purpose but to line the pockets of poachers and profiteers, and to drive endangered species closer to extinction.

    On the positive side, I’ve been studying natural healing for decades, and have take several natural supplements on a daily basis for most of my life. At 72, I haven’t taken a prescription drug in almost 20 years. During that time, I’ve successfully reversed hypertension, an irregular pulse, an enlarged heart, angina, kidney disease, arthritis, and symptoms of MS, and haven’t had influenza in almost 40 years.

    I also follow many natural dietary protocols, including avoiding red meat, sausage, fried foods, and refined sugars, minimizing dairy products and salt, and emphasizing fruits, green, yellow, and red vegetables, cold water fish, and whole grains.

    Good health is the body’s natural state, and almost all disease is caused by what we do and don’t take into our bodies, the nutrients we retain, and the waste and toxins we expel.

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