SEATTLE, Washington — Latin America’s collective governments repeatedly denied government assistance and public services to indigenous communities, consequently leaving them susceptible to poverty and with a lower standard of living. The indigenous populations in Latin America consist of approximately 50 million people, with the largest communities residing in Mexico, Guatemala, Peru and Bolivia. Indigenous communities make up only 8% of the total population but they account for the 14% of Latin Americans living in poverty and 17% living in extreme poverty. Material poverty also affects 43% of indigenous households. With the presence of COVID-19 in Latin America, these factors leave indigenous communities extremely vulnerable to the virus. Moreover, there are five major reasons how COVID-19 can disproportionately affects indigenous communities.
Compromised Health Situation
Since colonizers brought diseases such as smallpox, measles and influenza to indigenous communities that wiped out a detrimental amount of their population, the health situation among indigenous people in Latin America remains extremely sensitive. Currently, the life expectancy for indigenous people in Latin America is 20 years less than the average, and these populations have many health issues such as tuberculosis, diabetes, malnutrition and anemia. Compromised immune systems leave these populations at a much higher risk for contracting COVID-19 in Latin America.
Less Access to Health Services
Many indigenous communities thrive in isolated corners of Latin America, sometimes requiring several days of travel to reach the often overcrowded and understaffed healthcare facilities. This distance can protect these communities from outside dangers, but when a virus like COVID-19 hits these isolated communities the effect is fatal. Even if they can access a healthcare facility, many facilities lack the intercultural and linguistic training to properly help indigenous patients.
Local healthcare professionals may lack an understanding of many indigenous people’s suspicions of modern medicine, stemming from a different cultural understanding of treating illnesses. The distance paired with cultural dissonance means that many indigenous people do not have access to professional healthcare. There are a few innovative methods that healthcare facilities use such as remote consultations via video conferences, but high poverty rates prevent many from obtaining the technology to meet this alternative method.
Lack of Protective Protocols
Many indigenous leaders expressed frustration with the lack of government planned protocol on COVID-19, including Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, the chief coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin, and Tito Menezes from the Sateré-Mawé community in Brazil. Menezes revealed that the Brazilian government has not coordinated any policies or offered any direct care to indigenous communities.
According to the New Humanitarian, Menezes said “the Brazilian government refused to shut down economic activity and allowed traffic to continue” via the Amazon River, despite the danger it poses for indigenous communities who live along the river. Many indigenous communities in Latin America are at risk of contracting the virus because of the lack of protection from their government.
Unique Living Conditions
Many governments are ignorant of the living conditions of the indigenous people who are unable to follow the recommended safety measures. For example, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) produced materials in the country’s 14 indigenous languages, which is a step in the right direction but does not take into consideration all the associating factors such as living conditions.
The indigenous organization recommend regularly washing hands, which is effective, but in many communities the water supply is poor and limited. Maintaining distance can often be an issue as well when many extended indigenous families share a cramped living space. As a result, many indigenous communities could not effectively follow the safety measures as they did not take into account communities’ specific situations.
Many indigenous communities rely on agriculture for their incomes, so the economic impacts of the pandemic are largely detrimental to their livelihoods. This rings true for groups such as the Chaco who reside in eastern Bolivia, western Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. As a community that relies on agriculture, they must choose between working and risking the spread of the virus or isolating themselves and risking starvation.
Many indigenous people also have working-class jobs, such as custodial or construction jobs, where they must choose between their safety or poverty. Without their jobs or government assistance, these people are left defenseless.
Indigenous Communities Tackle COVID-19 in Latin America
While governments in Latin America need to work harder to support indigenous communities, many communities are taking the situation into their own hands. Branches of the CONAIE are working with local government bodies to organize exchanges of agriculture between regions. This helps communities avoid increases in food prices and creates a dialogue between governments and indigenous communities.
The Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin also announced the launch of the Amazon Emergency Fund, seeking to raise funds over 60 days totalling $8 million to purchase medicine, food and protective equipment for its communities. The Rainforest Foundation U.S. will also be sponsoring the fund and providing data-backed information about COVID-19 in Latin America to indigenous communities.
Latin America’s indigenous people took innovative and productive measures to protect themselves amid the COVID-19 pandemic despite their ongoing challenges to equality, safety and health. However, Latin America’s governments must take more productive measures to protect their indigenous populations by offering sufficient health services, establishing preventive measures and providing government assistance. It is the responsibility of those governing nations to advocate for indigenous communities who continually persevere through hardships.
– Natascha Holenstein