With over 33 million people across the region, indigenous communities play a key role in Latin America. Almost 90% of them live in Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Perú, accounting for a large part of the population of such countries.
As COVID-19 starts to spread on the continent, it may find an easy target in indigenous communities.
Land Seizures and Rampant Inequality
Oil exploration, mining, illegal logging and the expansion of agriculture threaten their livelihoods, their way of living and their basic human rights. Now, the coronavirus outbreak has added a new concern to the list, placing them in a highly vulnerable position.
“The health situation of indigenous peoples due to infectious-contagious diseases is already serious due to its high prevalence and very poor health service. The coronavirus would further aggravate this situation,” Peruvian anthropologist Beatriz Huertas, who specializes in indigenous peoples, told Mongabay.
In most places, indigenous populations are already in a precarious situation, to begin with. They face serious and persistent obstacles in gaining access to decent work and are often faced with discrimination social challenges. To make matters even worse, land seizures have become a constant threat in many areas. Their traditional livelihood strategies are increasingly under pressure due to the expansion of extractive activities, and integration is socially difficult.
There are marked inequalities between indigenous people and their non-indigenous counterparts in almost all socioeconomic and health indicators, and indigenous people are clearly at a disadvantage. They tend to die at younger ages and their health is worse than that of other population groups.
Worldwide, more than 50% of indigenous adults over the age of 35 have type 2 diabetes, and these numbers are projected to increase. In some indigenous communities, diabetes has reached epidemic proportions and jeopardizes the very existence of the community, according to the United Nations.
“Indigenous peoples are overall in much poorer in health, more likely to become disabled and their quality of life to decline, and ultimately to die younger than other people,” the UN claims. Their life expectancy is up to 20 years lower when compared to developed nations such as Australia.
Pre-existing health conditions
Indigenous communities experience disproportionately high levels of maternal and child mortality, malnutrition, cardiovascular disease, HIV / AIDS and other infectious diseases, such as malaria and tuberculosis. Indigenous women are particularly prone to these health problems.
Pre-existing illnesses and a weaker immune system have been shown to be associated with more severe COVID-19 cases. In Italy, 76.1% of patients who died from COVID-19 had hypertension, or high blood pressure, while one-third had heart disease.
This means that indigenous communities could face a larger threat from coronavirus, making self-isolation and quick action highly important in their communities. But self-isolating may be extremely difficult for people whose livelihoods depend on going outside.
There are already four confirmed cases of COVID-19 among indigenous groups in Latin America, but many more could not have been formally registered. The first one was in Peru by Aurelio Chino, the leader of the Quechua del Pastaza community, who recently came back from the Netherlands.
Two other cases were reported in Colombia two weeks ago in the Yupka community, which is now under lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus. At the same time, a woman member of the Kokama community in northern Brazil also tested positive last week.
The main concern lies in the communities that exist in voluntary isolation, with no contact with non-indigenous populations. They are extremely vulnerable as they have not developed immunity against current diseases that can be found across the world, experts agree.
There are 76 communities with 10.000 people that live in isolation across Latin America, specifically in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Perú and Venezuela, according to the UN. If the virus enters any of those communities, the health impact could be very significant.
Responding to the outbreak
There has been a disparity in the decisions of Latin American governments to the coronavirus outbreak, ranging from a lockdown to a much more flexible approach. This has led to many of the indigenous communities to declare quarantine on their own and close their borders.
For example, the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) has recommended avoiding contact with non-native people, suspending the entry and exit of the territories, and restricting activities inside the communities.
Meanwhile, In Ecuador, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (Confeniae) gave freedom to each community to take the most pertinent measures within their territory.
In Bolivia, the government closed the 22 natural areas of the country before the imminent advance of the virus in its territory. Meanwhile, In Peru, the mandatory confinement decreed by the government since March 16 has facilitated control of the communities’ territories.
The Coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) made an emergency call to the governments of the member countries to take sanitary measures and prepare contingency plans according to the specific situation of indigenous peoples.
The regional indigenous organization proposed strict control of entry and exit to indigenous territories, especially of people who do not belong to these communities, as well as limiting indigenous access to places of tourism or where find crowds. In addition, they suggest developing specific plans for possible outbreaks of the coronavirus.
“There are 506 indigenous communities who would be at imminent risk, in addition to 76 isolated indigenous peoples, whose immune system is very weak and any flu can lead to their disappearance. A pandemic of this magnitude for native communities would mean a catastrophe of great proportions,” said Robinson López, coordinator of climate change and biodiversity at COICA, in a press release.
As a guide for prevention and control strategies, a recent document by FAO highlights that all measures or interventions that affect indigenous peoples must have “their free, prior and informed consent”, and the will to remain in isolation must be respected.
FAO also recommends that governments include indigenous leaders in COVID-19 response groups, offer prevention information and audiovisual materials, and support translation and dissemination in their different languages. It also asks to consider traditional indigenous caregivers and healers and offer them training.
“We urge governments to intensify protection measures to stop the invasion of indigenous territories by external producers, ranchers, industries, miners, private companies and other actors, who can take advantage of the current crisis situation,” FAO claimed in its document.
The usual threats
Latin America is also the most dangerous region for indigenous leaders, with 83 assassinations last year, according to the Global Witness report. Colombia was registered as the most dangerous country, with 24 deaths, followed by Brazil, Guatemala, and Mexico.
The conflicts linked to mining expansion in the region were found to be the main reasons behind the assassinations, the report showed. The expansion of the agricultural sector ranked second, followed by activities to defend water resources by the indigenous leaders and illegal logging.
With all these concerns and the recent threat of COVID-19, indigenous populations may be faced with a significant crisis. A fast and reliable response from national and local authorities to avoid the spread of the virus will be key to deal with this new challenge — but this response needs to be inclusive and culturally appropriate. This is far from an easy challenge.