In the face of a pandemic – a guide to safe guarding indigenous peoples.

When we think of the COVID-19 crisis, we often imagine cities and overcrowded communities. It rarely takes us to remote and isolated areas where indigenous communities live. But we now know that the pandemic has taken a serious toll on these communities.

How is that possible when most of the world remains under stay-at-home orders and world travel is almost at a standstill? It turns out that lockdown measures are difficult to enforce in remote areas deep in the Amazon rainforest. City dwellers in densely populated cities in the Amazonas State, such as Manaus and Boa Vista in Brazil, are fleeing to rural areas and bringing with them the virus. Guyana reported its first case of COVID-19 in Region Nine after an infected person from neighbouring Brazil, the country with the world’s second highest infection rates visited the region.

The impact of such novel infectious disease can be devastating on these communities. In Guyana, an imported case from Brazil led to more than 130 people in self-quarantine, 169 infections and 1 death across three indigenous regions, according to Stabroek News, a local newspaper. The coronavirus is spreading rapidly in the tri-border areas of the Amazon between Brazil, Colombia and Peru, home to hundreds of different indigenous communities. Countries like Guyana must be added as the quartet in that tri-border scenario as Manus and Boa Vista is 1000KM and 126 KM or 2 hours (driving) respectively from Guyana’s most southern region of the Rupununi.

Why this population group is vulnerable.

These communities are traditionally poor, lack access to basic health services, information and infrastructure. The rapid spread of COVID-19, insufficient data and strained local government budgets compound the challenges for these historically marginalized communities.

History has demonstrated that diseases like COVID-19 can wreak havoc on Indigenous Peoples due to a variety of factors, from lack of access to infrastructure to lack of basic government services including vaccination.

Already marginalized, Indigenous Peoples chronically lack proper access to health resources and information, further exacerbating the risk to their communities in times of emergency.

According to the World Bank, indigenous populations account for up to 42 million people (latest available 2010 census data), or up to 8 percent of the total population in the region. They represent approximately 14 percent of the poor and 17 percent of the extremely poor in Latin America.

This is exacerbated by the fact that COVID-19 spreads fast, meaning it can tear through Indigenous communities with little built-up immunity.

Guyana’s southern region is vulnerable on two sides – the Brazil threat and the movement of miners through indigenous communities from the coast of Guyana. Three predominantly indigenous regions have now recorded 354 infections.  With raising infections in Guyana, a disaster is at the country’s backdoor and unless citizens exercise caution and adhere to the emergency measures promulgated by the government, the model figures of 1,400 and 20,000 infections can quickly become a reality.

Indigenous Peoples are the most marginalized and ill-equipped to deal with the COVID-19 or any health pandemic. The lack of access to healthcare, lack of medical supplies and those cited by UNICEF are all factors that will impact the communities’ ability to respond. A further contributing factor is a lack of access to timely and credible information of this evolving crisis.

For decision makers, health providers, and indigenous leaders and organizations to better manage the health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in the indigenous peoples’ territories, they could consider the following 4 key actions:

  1. Direct coordination of national and sub-national government with the coordination structures of indigenous peoples is the most effective way to guide the design and implementation of effective responses to COVID-19 in their territories. This coordination includes: (i) forming community emergency committees to facilitate coordination between indigenous peoples’ leaders and governments in the delivery of health and basic services; (ii) designing coordination plans and food, hygiene products and medical supplies plans; (iii) designing protocols for handling suspected cases in communities without health services or remote location and with limited communication channels; and (iv) identifying local indigenous professionals to care for confirmed infected community members and take isolation measures;
  2. Adapt standardized health measures and protocols for COVID-19 in contexts of high cultural and linguistic diversity and with limited access to medical services and basic services. Some examples include: (i) sanitation measures cannot be carried out according to standard protocols in conditions in which indigenous peoples do not have access to resources such as drinking water, soap, medicines, etc.; and (ii) social distancing measures are difficult to apply when family and community structures are intrinsically collective and with strong social cohesion.
  3. Plan differentiated and immediate-reaching communication strategies for populations with limited access to information and communication technologies, and mass media. Some key actions include: (i) enabling communication channels between authorities and the community during the emergency; (ii) designing communication campaigns in native languages and with messages appropriate to the local socio-cultural reality; and (iii) training indigenous leaders on the key issues of COVID-19 so that they can disseminate them in their communities.
  4. Consider mobility restrictions relevant in rural and dispersed environments. Some considerations include: (i) strengthening mobile health care services with COVID-19 equipment, especially for communities that do not have health centers; and (ii) strengthening quarantine protocols for the entry and exit to the territories of people who do not reside in the communities which the government has commendable done.

The implementation of appropriate measures, in direct dialogue and coordination with indigenous peoples, has the potential to improve the effectiveness of the actions that Guyana can take to tackle this health crises. Time is of the essence to put these ideas to work to save lives and empower these communities to be part of the solution.

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