Around the world, indigenous people are bearing a heavy burden from COVID-19. For many native peoples, coronavirus is a double-whammy: it exacerbates existing inequalities at the same time that it introduces new challenges.
Indigenous groups often experience what social scientists call structural vulnerability: a situation in which systemic issues like racism, sexism, or poverty (among others) combine to predispose people to a higher risk of harm. When it comes to medical issues, structural vulnerability manifests in health disparities, or instances in which one group of people carries a higher burden of illness, injury, or death than other groups. On a global scale, for example, indigenous people have life expectancies up to twenty years lower than average, and suffer from disproportionately high rates of health problems such as infant and maternal mortality, malnutrition, and infectious disease.i Issues such as these are certainly not unique to indigenous communities; all historically marginalized groups—including people of color, ethnic and religious minorities, LGBTQ+ and trans people—face their own versions of structural vulnerability.
The reasons for these inequalities are drastically more complex than could fit into one blog post, but for indigenous peoples they are deeply linked to the legacy of colonialism, and to ongoing systemic forms of discrimination and disempowerment. Around the world, many indigenous people live with unequal access to education, healthcare, economic opportunity, and many other important elements of life. Add a global pandemic onto that foundation, and you begin to understand why indigenous communities are suffering more than most during COVID-19. If you speak an indigenous language, how can you stay informed about the pandemic if information is only available in your area’s dominant languages? How can you wash your hands as frequently as recommended if you don’t have easy and reliable access to clean water? Who will help if you cannot work and your group or community is excluded from government aid programs? Where will you go if you get sick and there is no medical center in your area? And COVID-19 isn’t just about health—the virus also complicates politics, economics, and other realms of life.
In Brazil, for example, data suggests that the country’s COVID-19 mortality rate for indigenous people is about double the national average.ii In addition to a general lack of medical care and sanitation infrastructure, illicit mining and logging activity in the Amazon threatens many isolated indigenous groups who have little resistance to outside infectious diseases.
In the United States, the Navajo Nation—where nearly a third of houses lack running water—has the country’s highest per capita rate of COVID-19 deaths.iii The link between coronavirus risk and age means that a disproportionate number of the dead are tribal elders; each of those deaths is a loss in the sharing of cultural knowledge between generations. In South Dakota, the Cheyenne River and Oglala Lakota tribes, concerned about their severe dearth of medical supplies such as ventilators, have attempted to limit the spread of COVID-19 into their reservations by placing checkpoints along major roads; despite checkpoints being located on tribal land, the state government has threatened legal action if they are not removed.iv And in a mistake that now seems grimly prescient, the Seattle Indian Health Board asked the government for medical supplies; weeks later they received not the needed testing kits or PPE, but a box of body bags in response.v
In Scandinavia, COVID-related border closures have drastically altered the lives of the indigenous Sami, especially those involved in semi-nomadic reindeer herding.vi In areas around the Colombia/Venezuela border, the United Nations reports that indigenous groups such as the Bari, Yukpa, and Wayuu are at risk of “physical and cultural extinction because of insufficient food and severe malnutrition that can increase the risk of contagion.”vii And in Australia, indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have low rates of coronavirus thus far, though crowded housing conditions mean that social distancing is impossible and many fear that an outbreak is inevitable as travel restrictions ease; some community members have begun camping in the bush to provide more space for vulnerable elders.viii
The situation for the indigenous Quechua weaving communities of the Andes is equally complex. In late April, for example, Peruvian indigenous rights group AIDESEP filed a complaint against the government’s handling of COVID-19 in relation to Peru’s indigenous people, alleging “evident neglect and repeated discrimination at multiple levels.”ix In addition to a lack of government support, the drop-off in tourism means that many weavers are suddenly without their main source of income. The Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco’s latest newsletter features the voices of weavers in the communities that Andean Textile Arts (ATA) supports. They are worried about education for their children, a lack of healthcare, and how to make ends meet when there is no one to purchase their weaving.
“We are the forgotten ones; there is no financial support from the government,” explains Teodora Huilla Rodriguez, president of the Watay Weavers Association of Santa Cruz de Sallac. “In our community, there are no pharmacies…no medicines, the only thing we use are plants, mostly eucalyptus.”
Jaime Condori Huaman, president of the Munay Ticlla Weaving Association of Pitumarca, also describes what his community is facing: “In order to receive education, we have to put money on our cellphones’ plan so that our children can receive online education. Classes through the TV or radio are hard to understand. Economically, weaving was my main source of income to support my family…I am very concerned.”
Your previous donations allowed us to send a $12,000 emergency grant to the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (CTTC) at the start of the pandemic to help them buy already-made products from the weavers, giving communities some immediate income. And thanks to your continued generosity, our recent COVID-19 relief drive raised an additional $25,000 that will fund CTTC staff working with the weavers on textile techniques and products that will be readily saleable when tourism returns.
The issues that face indigenous people around the world are complex, and there are often no quick or easy solutions. Education and awareness are certainly critical pieces of the puzzle, but much of what is needed is systemic change, which can be difficult to achieve. That should not be a cause for hopelessness—it’s important to celebrate victories when and where they exist while simultaneously being realistic about the work that still needs to be done. We’ll continue to use this column to keep you updated on issues of relevance to indigenous people around the world. If there’s a particular topic or issue you’d like us to focus on, let us know!
COVID graphs via Our World in Data
Sami image by Matthew Kirby via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Stefanie Berganini is a textile hobbyist who joined the ATA board in 2019 after several years of helping with ATA’s newsletter and outreach activities. As a cultural anthropologist, Stefanie studies the human dimensions of political and economic systems. She received her MA from Colorado State University, and is currently working on PhD research focused on community resilience and wellbeing in the face of disaster. Prior to returning to academia, she worked in the publishing industry, both in the editorial world (including as assistant editor of Spin-Off and managing editor of Stitch), and as a freelance graphic designer.