By Amaial Mullick and Parul Wadhawan
As the coronavirus pandemic has swept the global community, vulnerable populations find themselves particularly exposed and disparities between demographics have been brought to the forefront of dialogue. Across the world, COVID-19 has unveiled and exacerbated inequality, placing the current socio-economic structures under a lens. The virus poses a substantial threat to Indigenous communities both in the Global North and South. As a result of colonisation and systemic discrimination, these communities face chronic illness, lack of access to healthcare, and fewer government resources during this volatile time. Indigenous populations have historically been marginalised by states, resulting in constructed inequalities and gross negligence at the hands of administrations. While governments advocate spatial policies of social distancing and implement preventative measures, these efforts fall short by lacking consideration of socio-economic disparity and traditional communal inhabitancy.
Canada – the vanguard for liberalism – has a sordid history with its Indigenous communities. Indigenous populations, the primary settlers of Canadian land, were forced into reservations and to this day are still fighting for their nationhood. The systemic inequalities resulting from disenfranchisement, exploitation, and oppression create a disproportionate predisposition to COVID-19 for these communities. Though the virus does not discriminate, historic structures in Canada including the residential system, land occupation and oppression have created conditions resulting in inaccess and inequity.
The majority of those who identify as First Nations, Aboriginal, Inuit and Metis live on reserves or within communities governed by land claims. Lack of resources, clean drinking water and overpopulation within these designated lands create a greater chance of exposure to illnesses such as COVID-19. Additionally, Indigenous communities face discrimination in access to healthcare services. Due to racialised urban planning, medical centers near and around reserves are scarce and understaffed. Remnants of colonial rule and intergenerational trauma have manifested in poor quality healthcare coupled with higher rates of diabetes, respiratory conditions and high blood pressure.
These pre-existing conditions are correlated with decades of poverty and exclusion, factors that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Unemployment, poverty, and food insecurity rates have risen nation-wide but were already higher in reservations compared to national averages. Even a singular case within a community poses a threat, as communal living and group cultural activities are rooted within Indigenous traditions. Constraints placed on physical interaction has affected the mental health of those on reserves, with individuals experiencing higher rates of depression and anxiety compared to non-Indigenous citizens.
These realities raise the question: as COVID-19 progresses and weans, will Indigenous populations be left behind? While isolation has protected reserve communities from contraction, the remote nature of such localities makes healthcare practitioners and resources inaccessible. Set against a dearth of government support, amplification of inequality has put the current system to the test. As the government adopts a one-size fits all policy, Indigenous people must be involved in addressing concerns, for there to be equitable programs addressing the needs of communities. It is imperative that Indigenous leaders be a component of the current dialogue with government institutions.
Similarly, the indigenous population of Brazil, residing primarily in the Amazon basin, who are already facing the increased threats of deforestation, fires, industrial extraction, agribusiness expansion and climate change are now combatting a pandemic as well. Recent studies have concluded that indigenous people in Brazil are five times more likely to contract the coronavirus than the country’s white population, even with similar socioeconomic statuses and number of residents in the home. The traditional communal lifestyle, poor sanitation facilities and habiting remote areas with little access to healthcare systems completely rule out the prospect of social distancing, thus calling for special attention on behalf of the Brazillian authorities.
As per the pre-existing policy mechanisms which primarily seek to exploit tribes in parts of the Brazillian Amazon, there are concerns that states and private sector actors are using the pandemic as an excuse to further accelerate land-grabbing and human rights violations against indigenous peoples and local communities. This may be evidenced by Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro vetoing the provisions of a law that obligated the federal government to provide drinking water, disinfectants and a guarantee of hospital beds to Indigenous communities amid the COVID-19 pandemic, citing the cost as the main deterrent. Furthermore, the president also vetoed funding for the states and local governments with emergency plans for Indigenous communities, as well as provisions to help provide them with more information on the novel coronavirus, including greater internet access.
A mere fraction of the measures needed to protect roughly 850,000 of Brazil’s indigenous have been officially ratified by Bolsonaro, causing the Supreme Court to intervene. Eventually, the Supreme Court affirmed an earlier court decision that required the federal government to implement safety measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Nonetheless, the indigenous groups’ main demand was rejected: A deadline for all outsiders to leave their lands. As a result, dozens of Indigenous people, in protest, blocked a major highway in Brazil’s Amazon to pressure the government into helping, since all the legal routes available to them stood exhausted.
The gross negligence on part of the Bolsonaro administration and little to no safeguards for this extremely vulnerable section of society during the pandemic is merely an extension of the systemic disregard Brazil’s indigenous population faces on an everyday basis. With no restrictions on entry to their land, people from outside their territory have spread the novel coronavirus among them, resulting in a looming threat. The COVID-19 discourse for the indigenous peoples of Brazil is testament to the complete omission of the minority’s interests within the federal government in all aspects of life, reducing them to second-class citizens in their own land.
Concerns raised are those felt within Indigenous populations globally, both in developing and developed countries. Policies implemented and propagated by governments’ fail to serve the needs of marginalised communities, who will continue to face lasting hardships left by the pandemic.