Why COVID-19 Disproportionately Damages Indigenous Communities in Latin America

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Date: Jul 07, 2020

Author: Ian Tisdale

As COVID-19 spreads through Latin America, its impacts have been overwhelmingly unequal. Indigenous communities, whose needs were already neglected even before the outbreak of the pandemic, are now disproportionately facing coronavirus’ devastating consequences. Lack of access to healthcare, clean water and sanitation, and food security paired with a vulnerability to armed violence from paramilitary groups and illegal enterprises during lockdown mean that indigenous peoples are dying at higher rates. According to the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples (APIB) in Brazil, COVID’s mortality rate is twice as high for indigenous populations than others. In Peru, indigenous communities are facing a death rate of 16%, which is eight times higher than the national average.

International and government support, the procurement of resources, and collaboration with indigenous leaders and autonomous indigenous communities ultimately determine how effectively indigenous people can combat the medical and economic repercussions of the coronavirus. The UN’s Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights identified how indigenous communities with sufficient food and water resources to be autonomous and self-sustainable and who receive adequate government support in healthcare and education have been the most successful at battling COVID-19. However, most indigenous communities are not getting the support they need and are instead encountering a myriad of problems making them increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of the virus.


Lack of resources

The outbreak of COVID illustrates the drastic damages of economic inequality and disparity in indgenous communities throughout the region. Indigenous people already face higher risk of health complications due to malnutrition and geographic isolation, living in remote areas where state medical resources are inaccessible or inexistent altogether. In the Trapeze region of the Amazon, where the borders of Peru, Colombia and Brazil meet, there are nearly 6,000 measured COVID infections with access to only two ventilators and no intensive care beds.

Indigenous activists from Guatemala pointed out that without clean water and proper sanitation resources, there is no way for indigenous communities to take sanitary preventive measures, like washing hands, against the virus. Many communities are also very crowded into small pieces of land with families condensed into multi-generation homes, placing elderly family members at higher risk of contracting the virus and dying.

The lockdown and the cessation of state education funds to community schools, which often serve food and medical resources to indigenous children, are also heightening levels of food insecurity and limiting healthcare access in indigenous communities. Josefa García, administrator in a Wayuu community school, in Colombia echoes community anxieties: “Our fear is that if we don’t die of the virus, we will die of hunger.”

State authorities also not only fail to conduct any coordinated public health efforts for indigenous communities but even fail to break indigenous language barriers, making public health and virus protection information unavailable for many communities – an issue only exacerbated by lack of access to telephone lines and the internet.


Land Security and Violence

Nationwide lockdowns have placed many indigenous communities previously vulnerable to organized violence and land encroachment from paramilitary groups and illegal enterprises like logging, mining and cattle ranching at greater risk. In Colombia’s Chocó region, which is rich with gold deposits and coca plants, many indigenous populations have faced waves of violent attacks during lockdown from paramilitaries fighting for control of cocaine smuggling routes, coca farms, and mining deposits on indigenous land.

In Brazil, lockdown preventing environmental and indigenous leaders from working in the field, alongside encouragement of continued mining, logging and farming from President Jair Bolsonaro, means that indigenous communities are seeing an increase in land invasion and violent attacks from loggers and miners seeking to take their land.

For some, this threat on land security is worse than any impending threat from COVID-19. Without land security, many indigenous communities will go without sustainable food resources during the virus. As the coronavirus lockdown continues, indigenous land owners will face more threats of violence from armed groups, face further unchecked human rights violations, and face the possibility that their property, and food security will be stolen.

Land encroachment has also furthered the risk of COVID transmission onto indigenous communities who aim to continue self-isolation in order to prevent the arrival of the virus. In Brazil and Peru, blockades constructed by indigenous communities on the Amazon River to keep outsiders who possibly have COVID away have been torn down by miners and loggers, or largely ignored – placing isolated communities more at risk of coming into contact with the virus.


Possible Outcomes and Consequences

COVID-19 has, and will continue to exacerbate the economic inequality and disparity that indigenous communities already face. Employment in agriculture in indigenous communities already impacted by continued land encroachment and environmental effects from climate change, will continue to suffer from mandated lockdowns – further threatening food security for indigenous populations.

Worse, the arrival of COVID-19 threatens to completely annihilate isolated indigenous communities, representative of the historical destruction of foreign borne epidemics and pandemics placed onto indigenous peoples – from smallpox and measles to H1N1. “Right now the big issue is stopping this virus from reaching the villages. If this virus gets into the villages it will cause a huge amount of death,” said Sofía Mendonça, a public health physician working with the Xingu community in the Amazon, on the border of Venezuela and Brazil. “We are talking about true genocide.”

Many indigenous communities facing shortages in medical supplies or lack of governmental support are forced to resort to traditional medicine and remedies, which have some success, but do not provide adequate medical support to the damage that COVID-19 has created.

According to the UN’s Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, there is still time to protect indigenous communities from the coming damage of COVID-19. State governments need to afford indigenous human rights, like access to healthcare, clean water, and sanitation, while respecting indigenous rights to autonomy and self-government, in order to slow or stop destruction from the incoming virus. Protections of indigenous land and culture need to be enforced, and public health information needs to be accessible in indigenous languages in order for there to be a substantial fight against COVID in indigenous communities. Above all else, there needs to be governmental and international support in the provision testing and public health resources to indigenous communities in order to respond effectively to COVID-19.