SEATTLE, Washington — The damaging exclusions that Indigenous peoples suffer from national governments, including exclusions from healthcare, protection and land rights, have extended to COVID-19 assistance measures worldwide. While some indigenous groups isolate as a traditional custom, like the Kankanaey-Igorot of the Philippines, who yearly quarantine their village before or after the harvest, this practice may now take on a new meaning as a survival tactic. However, isolation measures cut both ways, as governmentally-imposed isolation negatively impacts Indigenous peoples by ostracizing them from already limiting healthcare services.
Cultural Inheritance of Survival
On July 7, 2020, the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health hosted a webinar called, “Indigenous Perspectives on COVID-19” to bring awareness to the unique plight of Indigenous people enduring the coronavirus pandemic. “Native people have a cultural inheritance of survival and strength,” affirmed Delight Satter during the webinar. This cultural inheritance is being tested today as Indigenous peoples struggle to self-isolate, provide for their communities with low resources and access reliable COVID-19 information. Satter is the senior health scientist for the Office of Tribal Affairs and Strategic Alliances in CDC’s Center for State, Tribal, Local and Territorial Support. Through her research, Satter shares information supported by her lived experience as a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.
Measurements Distort COVID-19 in Indigenous Communities
The first hurdle to alleviating COVID-19 in global Indigenous communities is the context in which data is collected. Data collection by national agencies is typically in the context of colonization and racialized settings, Satter explained. This means that the detail of who is considered Indigenous is determined by colonizer-sanctioned forms of recognition, which adds burden to Indigenous communities already struggling during this global pandemic.
In the 2016 Australian census, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were undercounted by 17.5%, narrowing the scope of resources allocated. Furthermore, the number of indigenous people counted and measured impacts the conclusions drawn about the 6% of the global population identified as Indigenous. Yet, Indigenous peoples are suppressed in defining their own communities.
As a result of this marginalization, Indigenous communities, especially women and girls, are disproportionately impacted by epidemics and other global crises. Members of these communities account for almost 19% of the extreme poor, more than triple their proportionate representation as a sector of the world’s population. This discrepancy is exacerbated by the presence of outside profiteers on native lands, such as the conversion of reservation land to mining and logging allotments that decreases farmable land available to Indigenous communities and making food scarce. Crop yields are even further reduced by climate change, another factor that disproportionately harms Indigenous peoples.
Isolation and COVID-19 in Indigenous Communities
While Indigenous communities are already somewhat isolated from the general public of nations due to their geographical settings, quarantine has further complicated matters. Within communities, one in eight Indigenous people lives in overcrowded housing, which makes social distancing ineffective.
Moreover, when businesses move into reservation lands, it leaves Indigenous communities particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 due to lower immunity levels. When those in pursuit of natural resources, for example, enter an Indigenous community, they bring pathogens that the residents have yet to encounter, and thus do not have antibodies to fight. Historically, these communities have been particularly harmed by infectious diseases brought intentionally or accidentally by colonizers, removing health efficacy from Indigenous hands.
Yet, even when Indigenous communities effectively isolate, this cuts them off from necessary information about the COVID-19 pandemic. In some remote Aboriginal communities in Australia, between 2% and 6% of people have access to online information via computer, and just 43% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People own a smartphone. This limited access is made worse by the high concentration
of Australia’s pandemic response being online, namely via the official Australian WhatsApp channel dedicated to COVID-19 and the newly launched COVIDSafe app.
Minimizing COVID-19 in Indigenous Communities
In Canada, Dr. Evan Adams, the chief medical officer of British Columbia’s First Nations Health Authority, engages the Indigenous communities in preventative measures. He attests that there are no known cases of COVID-19 in Indigenous communities in Canada, making them a rare population in a global context. For this reason, Dr. James Makokis from the Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Alberta asks Indigenous people to recall how their ancestors weathered smallpox and the Spanish flu by social distancing. He is calling for the modification of ceremonies and cultural practices, and even the halting of certain practices like sweat lodges until COVID-19 is contained.
Other communities have relocated entirely. Several groups from near the town of Wilcannia in Australia have migrated into the Australian bush to socially distance, setting up tent camps on the Darling River.
Outsiders and nations that have colonized the land of Indigenous peoples carry a responsibility to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 in Indigenous communities. A few avenues for such change is to disseminate COVID-19 information by implementing accessible technological information pathways and boost digital literacy among Indigenous peoples through government programs.
Non-Indigenous people must also stop invading Indigenous land to extract resources as it endangers those without immunity in the process. Finally, all governments must respect the right of Indigenous people to self-determine, especially regarding the right to pursue voluntary isolation.
Indigenous elders are the conduits of traditional knowledge and cultural practices that undergird the well-being, health and recovery of these communities. This role is more necessary now than ever. As a result, the especially vulnerable and uniquely knowledgeable Indigenous elder population must be safeguarded by all those within and outside communities.