Indigenous communities, who often lack access to proper healthcare facilities, on account of a history of oppression and discrimination, are also suffering disproportionately due to the Covid-19 pandemic as per the United Nations.
A guidance released by the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner, titled Covid-19 and Indigenous People’s Rights, says, “The COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately affecting indigenous peoples, exacerbating underlying structural inequalities and pervasive discrimination. These serious impacts need to be specifically addressed in the response to and aftermath of this crisis.”
The guidance says, “Indigenous peoples, like all individuals, are entitled to all human rights. Specific rights that are of particular relevance to indigenous peoples during this crisis – both individual and collective in nature – include the right to self determination, and the right of indigenous peoples to participate and be consulted on measures that affect them, including the requirement to seek their free, prior and informed consent.”
The document then goes on to examine and explain the impact of Covid-19 on Indigenous people’s access to healthcare, right to participation and consultation, right to access information, and impact on indigenous peoples’ livelihoods, territories, land and resources.
Access to Healthcare
The guidance says, “The health rights of indigenous peoples were already at risk prior to the pandemic, and the vulnerable situation they are in has been exacerbated by the crisis, as the underlying challenges have not been addressed. In particular, indigenous communities are often located in remote regions, usually left behind with limited or no access to healthcare and medical support.”
It adds, “Older indigenous persons and those with underlying medical conditions are more likely to require urgent and intensive respiratory care, and may have difficulty accessing medical care in these areas. Many live a communal way of life, highly exposing them to the danger of COVID-19.”
The guidance also highlights the plight of Indigenous women saying, “Historically, they are considered as the bearer of the breath of life, thus in charge of providing food and as caregivers increasing their risk to the disease. Indigenous women are at an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 also when they need to travel to access sexual and reproductive health services that may not be available in remote indigenous areas.” It adds, “The lockdown policies implemented by many countries throughout the world expose indigenous women to heightened risks of gender-based violence.” But what appears to be more alarming is the finding that “indigenous peoples are particularly vulnerable to pandemics, as they have shown little resistance to respiratory illnesses in the past. Infectious diseases, like dengue fever and malaria have ravaged indigenous communities for decades. Many indigenous peoples have experienced reduced immunity due to illnesses as benign as the common cold.”
Right to participation and consultation
The guidance finds that, “Some States are adopting measures to combat the COVID-19 health crisis that directly affect indigenous peoples, without their participation and without meaningful consultation and cooperation with the indigenous peoples concerned.” The UN guidance recommends the following actions for States and stakeholders:
• Ensure the participation of indigenous peoples in decision-making regarding the planning, development, and implementation of programmes and in the development of preventive measures against Covid-19.
• Consider indigenous peoples as fundamental partners in addressing the pandemic. States should consult with indigenous peoples, including those living in urban contexts, women, youth, older persons and LGBTI members and those living in urban contexts. Special attention should be paid to the needs and rights of indigenous peoples living in transborder territories, including transborder cooperation between the concerned States, particularly in the Amazon region.
• Consult and cooperate in good faith with indigenous peoples, through their own representative institutions, to ensure that their views and specific rights and needs are included, when adopting and implementing legislative, administrative, policy, budgetary or regulatory measures in response to Covid-19, that may impact their lives.
• The right of indigenous peoples to be consulted with the objective of obtaining their free, prior and informed consent remains applicable during the pandemic. Seek to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples when making decisions directly affecting them, including in the prevention and containment of the disease.
Right to access information
The absence of information in indigenous languages and lack of access to electricity and the internet are key areas of concern. The guidance advises governments across the world to ensure “timely, accessible and accurate information about prevention and care, how to seek help in case of symptoms, and what is being done to address the pandemic, is made available to indigenous peoples living in their ancestral territories and in urban contexts, in as many indigenous languages and formats (oral, written, child friendly) as possible.”
It further advises, “Support information campaigns with and for indigenous peoples on the pandemic, including health information specific to persons with disabilities, communicated in accessible modes, means and formats and developed in consultation with organisations of persons with disabilities and indigenous representatives. Provide information on preventive measures in indigenous languages, and through their own representatives and institutions, to ensure information is accessible and culturally appropriate and inclusive to all, including indigenous persons with disabilities.” It also says, “Involve indigenous youth in the dissemination of COVID-19 related messages within the communities, particularly through social media,” and recommends ensuring “access to information about preventive measures and support services for victims of gender-based violence and about how to access essential sexual and reproductive health services during the pandemic.”
Impact on livelihood, land and resources
The guidance says, “A majority of indigenous communities depend on agricultural production, seasonal jobs in agriculture, fishing or pastoralism. Restrictions on movement may result in their livelihoods being destroyed, and markets in indigenous areas being closed.” It further says, “Lockdowns and restrictions on movement can negatively affect indigenous peoples right to adequate food, as well as their right to land, natural wealth and resources, particularly for those who already face food insecurity as a result of land confiscation or grabbing and the loss of their territories.”
Indigenous people worldwide have been struggling for rights to forest land and resources, despite provisions in law that protect these rights. Implementation has usually been impeded on account of a nexus between local bureaucrats and powerful industrialists, almost always with full blessings of politicians in positions of power. The guidance says, “Prior to the Covid-19 crisis, the expropriation of indigenous lands and natural resources and the increase in conflicts on their territories were already placing indigenous peoples in a particularly precarious situation. The crisis has led to reports of encroachment upon indigenous land by opportunists, such as illegal loggers and miners.”
To this effect the guidance advises, “Ensure indigenous territorial protection and the health of indigenous peoples during the pandemic by considering a moratorium on extractive mining, oil, and logging activities, industrial agriculture, and all religious proselytization within or on the border of indigenous territories, and take mitigating measures against encroachment upon indigenous land.” It further recommends, “Avoid removal of indigenous peoples from their lands; diminishing or using indigenous lands for military activity, especially for the duration of this pandemic.”
The entire guidance may be viewed here.