From Canada to Brazil to Australia, the pandemic is threatening the survival of Indigenous peoples

From Canada to Brazil to Australia, the pandemic is threatening the survival of Indigenous peoples

In the Amazon, the members of this Indigenous community make their own face masks. Meanwhile, the nearby metropolis of Manaus has been very hard hit by the virus. Its mayor, overwhelmed by the crisis, launched an appeal for international aid on 2 May 2020.

(Alex Pazuello/Prefeitura de Manaus)

A month ago, as the threat of infection with the new coronavirus was approaching, some 20 Amerindian communities in several Brazilian states spontaneously took action, ahead of the government. They blocked access to their territories themselves, using tree trunks across roads and posting lookouts, in a bid to isolate themselves from all outside visitors.

Often living in more precarious conditions than the rest of the population and with much higher health risks, most indigenous peoples around the world know that COVID 19 – against which neither they nor other populations yet have immunity – is a threat to their very survival and the survival of their culture. And more than ever before, probably, as indigenous communities are only able to count on limited support from national authorities.

In Canada, communities have “reacted quickly to isolate themselves”, setting up patrols to prevent people from going out or coming in, says Marjolaine Sioui, executive director of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Health and Social Services Commission.

In Prince Edward Island, only residents and essential workers are allowed to enter the Lennox Island Mi’kmaq reserve. In Manitoba, the Opaskwayak Cree Nation went further, passing a motion to evict residents who continue to disobey the rules of physical distancing, especially those who organise gatherings of more than 10 people, such as house parties, or those who sell illegal drugs. Chief Christian Sinclair announced that these members will receive an eviction notice when the First Nation’s state of emergency is lifted. As a result of such efforts, the figures for 10 May show that out of the more than 68,000 cases of people infected with the new coronavirus, the number among First Nations was kept to 175 (including 2 deaths). Sioui, however, has her doubts about the accuracy of the numbers [editor’s note: which, moreover, do not include the figures for Inuit communities].

These decisions reflect the concern of Canada’s Indigenous peoples, who are more vulnerable to infectious diseases, due to “socioeconomic factors”, as recognised by Marc Miller, minister of Indigenous services. High rates of diabetes and hypertension are compounded by malnutrition, food insecurity and exposure to environmental contaminants, “with important implications for immune response efficiency”, warned 90 Canadian scientists, researchers and physicians, in an open letter to the government of President Justin Trudeau, published on 7 April. In an interview with Equal Times, Malek Batal, a nutrition researcher at the University of Montreal and a signatory to the letter, talks of the “profound inequity” between Indigenous peoples and other Canadians.

Difficult to enforce protection guidelines and systemic racism

Often far from urban centres, Indigenous communities are also dependent on complex supply chains, creating concerns about shortages of fresh food. “You need a healthy immune system to fight the virus, but that’s not the case when you are malnourished,” says Batal. “Fresh food runs out quickly,” says Grand Chief Kaitlynn Hester Moses of the Cree Nation Youth Council in Quebec. In response to the emergency, the Trudeau government has announced more than CAN$400 million in aid for Canada’s 1.6 million indigenous peoples, particularly for public health and food security.

Indigenous peoples also live in “the most egregious housing conditions in the country”, states the open letter, citing problems such as mould, poor ventilation and overcrowding. “It’s not uncommon to have seven to 10 people under the same roof,” says Sioui. “The positive cases are isolated in separate houses,” adds Hester-Moses. She mentions “5 to 6 cases” among the 20,000 Crees in her community.

Indigenous reserves also have to take care of enforcing the health regulations on their territories, with some not having a police force. In Abitibi, the Long Point First Nation asked for Ottawa’s help in maintaining law and order, to no avail.

In Waskaganish, the Cree Nation Youth Council has launched a series of online challenges to encourage young people to stay in their homes “while having fun”, Hester-Moses told Equal Times.

Further north, since early April, the Inuit of Nunavik have been benefitting from the support of the Canadian Rangers, stationed in the region, with the installation of medical infrastructures. In this region, there are only two hospitals, without resuscitation capacity for 12,000 Inuit in 14 villages, connected solely by plane. A confinement order was issued for all the communities after two cases emerged.

In addition to the health and material difficulties, the open letter also underlines the “systemic racism”. In early April, two members of the Innu First Nation with symptoms were refused tests and went back into their community. They were eventually confirmed positive. More generally, Ottawa does not inform the communities of the presence of positive cases within their communities, and only provides figures by province. Requests for this information were made after the announcement of an outbreak in Alert Bay, near Vancouver, but the federal government refused to share it, citing confidentiality requirements. However, some see it as a lack of confidence in indigenous peoples. Malek Batal spoke to Equal Times about “a fundamental misunderstanding between the Indigenous population and other Canadians” and the need for “dialogue to find local solutions”.

When the nearest hospital is 600 kilometres away

In Australia, the plight of the Indigenous peoples has many similarities with the situation in Canada. As soon as the first alerts were raised in March, the states and territories of Australia closed their borders and access to Indigenous communities. One such example is the Aboriginal Shire of Yarrabah, located on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef in North Queensland. “The military ensures that only residents, police, health and education workers enter the area,” says Jason Agostino, the community’s general practitioner and a medical advisor for NACCHO (National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation). “But we are concerned that the virus may get here. Cairns, just an hour’s drive away, has 30 cases, many of them Indigenous peoples living in the city and with family ties in Yarrabah,” he warns.

The new coronavirus is seriously worrying Aboriginal leaders and authorities, even though the disease is still well under control in the country, with 6,964 cases and 97 deaths. But 55 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have already been infected by the new coronavirus. None of the 120,000 people living in remote areas have as yet been affected.

According to several Indigenous health associations, the epidemic would be “devastating” if it affected isolated Indigenous peoples, some of whom live hundreds of kilometres from a hospital. Already considered “vulnerable”, the Aboriginal people have a life expectancy eight years below the national average in normal times and are more deeply affected by poverty. Half of them suffer from chronic diseases such as diabetes, kidney or cardiovascular diseases.

According to a report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, one in eight Aboriginal people also lives in overcrowded housing, which increases the risk of the virus spreading. “It is a serious and long-standing problem,” says Kyllie Cripps, a Pallawa woman and lecturer at the University of New South Wales. “Some people cannot afford to pay rent and, in some areas, there is not enough housing available for everyone. A typical household may consist of 10 people and, with this crisis, in some areas, there may be as many as 30 people living under the same roof.”

In the centre of the country, in the middle of the desert, the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal Protected Area (APY) is home to 12 communities spread over 100,000 square kilometres, three times the size of England. Most residents speak the local language, Pitjantjatjara, and some speak English. “Everyone understands that the virus is a serious matter and physical distance is respected, especially in our few stores,” says Richard King, general manager of APY Lands, where some 2,300 people live. In the event of complications from the disease, the nearest hospital is 600 kilometres away, in Alice Springs. The government has, however, provided AUD$50 million for airlifting people from rural areas across the country.

Brazil, terrain impossible to control

The vastness of the terrain is also a challenge in Brazil. With more than 800,000 people recognised as belonging to Indigenous peoples, according to the FUNAI (the National Indian Foundation), spread over more than 100 million square kilometres, protecting these populations, and especially those who live in the heart of the rainforest, is an impossible task for the Brazilian authorities. According to a study carried out by researchers from the public health research institute, Fiocruz, and the Getulio Vargas Foundation, 34 per cent of the Indigenous population lives in areas at a high risk of contamination.

This is the case, for example, of groups living on Indigenous lands close to urban centres. Their heavy reliance on the city makes it almost impossible to maintain a sanitary barrier to protect these communities. “Some also live in very confined spaces without access to basic sanitation, which increases the risk of contagion,” explains Tatiane Klein, an anthropologist and researcher at the Centre for Amerindian Studies at the University of São Paulo (USP). As elsewhere, Indigenous organisations warn of the higher risk of mortality due to their socio-epidemiological vulnerability. “The very communal way of life also puts them at risk,” warns Douglas Rodrigues, a doctor and coordinator of the Xingu project at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP).

The invasion of – legally protected – Indigenous lands also puts isolated or recently contacted Indigenous groups at great risk of contagion. Access to these territories requires a permit, even in normal times, issued by the FUNAI, on health grounds, among others. But many illegal miners, loggers and evangelical missionaries, do not respect these rules.

It is estimated that in the Yanomami territory alone, in the Amazon, there are at least 20,000 garimpeiros, illegal miners, who are uncontrollable vectors of transmission. And it was this territory that saw the second Indigenous person, Alvanei Xirixana, a 15-year-old Yanomami, die from COVID-19.

According to Rodrigues, if the new virus reaches the most isolated communities, entire ethnic groups could be wiped out without scientists even knowing about it. “The worst-case scenario would be a repeat of what we’ve seen in the past, where large epidemics have decimated Amerindians. Humanity will suffer the losses, because Indigenous peoples have a great knowledge of the environment and that may be lost forever,” he laments.

The spread of the epidemic in Brazil is taking a worrying turn due to the Bolsonaro government’s erratic management of it and the lack of coordination between federal and local authorities. The number of deaths from the disease has exceeded 12,400. More than 178,000 people have been infected with the new virus in the country, which has not yet reached the “peak” of infections. According to the Ministry of Health’s Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health, there have been more than 300 confirmed cases of infection among Indigenous peoples in 34 ethnic groups, and some 77 deaths.

Although the Special Secretariat – which has recently had its budget cut – has adopted a contingency plan for the evolution of the pandemic in Indigenous lands, Tatiane Klein believes that stronger measures should be taken. “Their protection is guaranteed under the constitution. But when it comes to health, Indigenous people are always the last link in the chain.” For Carolina Santana, of the Observatory for the Human Rights of Isolated and Recently Contacted Indigenous Peoples (OPI), a differentiated and adapted protocol for treating illness among Indigenous people is required. Doctor Gabriel Mantovani, who is a consultant at the clinic in the Guaraní community of Tenonde Porã, in the São Paulo metropolitan area, points out that there are no tests for the many suspected cases in the village.

“Mass testing would help us focus our work on positive cases and their isolation,” he says. Brazil is one of the countries with the lowest number of tests in the world and a very high number of undetected cases.

In the urgency of the pandemic, governments do not always take all populations into account or devise specific measures. This is why the chair of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Anne Nuorgam, reminded member states of the need to keep the 476 million people belonging to Indigenous peoples (6.2 per cent of the world’s population) well informed, particularly in their languages, and to prioritise dedicated protection programmes and protocols.

In a guidance note, the Forum recalls: “It is also important to recognize that Indigenous peoples are indispensable partners in fighting the pandemic. They have traditional governance institutions and knowledge for protecting biodiversity, including their own health and food systems, which can greatly contribute to building a successful COVID-19 emergency response and recovery.”

This story has been translated from French.

Journalists Mayra Castro (Brazil), Lilas-Apollonia Fournier (Australia), and Laurent Rigaux (Canada) contributed to this article.