Can the development sector protect indigenous communities from COVID-19?

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A Zapotec woman washes her hands after learning about handwashing and social distancing to avoid COVID-19 in Oaxaca state, Mexico. Photo by: REUTERS / Jose de Jesus Cortes

CANBERRA — With the announcement in Brazil of a COVID-19 case among the Yanomami people, increased activity has been seen in South America, Asia, Africa, and Australia to highlight and support the needs of indigenous communities in their fight against the virus.

Emerging data suggests that preexisting medical conditions and health vulnerabilities play an important factor in determining whether a person who contracts COVID-19 will recover or die from the disease. Communities with high levels of noncommunicable diseases including diabetes or other infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue have weakened immune systems that increase vulnerability to COVID-19. Poor access to services including health care accentuates that risk.

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This makes indigenous communities — particularly remote indigenous communities — among the most vulnerable groups globally. And advocacy groups have been highlighting the need for a greater focus on this group as part of the pandemic response.

“We urge Member States and the international community to include the specific needs and priorities of indigenous peoples in addressing the global outbreak of COVID 19,” Anne Nuorgam, chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, said in a release earlier this month.

In supporting this action, the global development sector is poised to play a key role in action and advocacy — including preventing the virus from entering communities, helping health communication, and supporting local leadership and better access to essential services for these vulnerable groups.

Understanding the risks

The Inter-American Development Bank is among the organizations highlighting the risk indigenous communities face due to COVID-19. According to research published earlier this month, indigenous communities — in particular those that are remote — face heightened poverty, unemployment, access to clean water and communication, as well as reduced access to health care.

“As a result, the indigenous population already suffers from numerous chronic and infectious diseases such as type II diabetes, tuberculosis, hepatitis B, HIV/AIDS, malaria, dengue, and Zika, among others,” the research explains.

With preexisting conditions that weaken immune systems, these populations face an increased vulnerability to COVID-19 — and possibly extinction.

“In the case of indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation or in initial contact, COVID-19 threatens mass extinction of entire populations because these groups have no immunity to vaccine-preventable infections,” the research states. “These groups are currently beyond the reach of health systems.”

Prevention built on local leadership and communication

Preventing the virus from entering indigenous communities has been a key point of action for governments. In Australia, state governments have limited access to remote communities to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in areas where health care is lacking.

Where there has been no contact with the outside world, guidance from the International Working Group on the Protection of Indigenous Peoples Living in Voluntary Isolation and Initial Contact in the Amazon and in the Gran Chaco recommends maintaining zero contact.

But where preexisting contact exists and essential services are required, the group recommends a range of primary and secondary controls to prevent the disease entering and spreading — including testing people for COVID-19 before entering indigenous communities, quarantine periods, and using remote methods of communication where possible.

But equally important is the engagement with indigenous communities where preexisting contact exists — and respect for their decisions.

“We … ask Member States to ensure that Indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation and initial contact exercise their right to self-determination and their decision to be isolated be respected,” Nuorgam’s statement reads.

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Ensuring that information about COVID-19 is provided in local languages and is culturally relevant is important for awareness and action. Indigenous leaders also need to be making decisions on how their community can respond.

In discussing their work with Aboriginal communities in Australia, Northern Territory and Western Australian Director for Save the Children Australia Noelene Swanson told Devex that Indigenous community-controlled organizations should be supported to provide services to their communities

“This includes backing decisions made by community leaders to protect communities and ease congestion and overcrowding, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic," she said.

Within IDB, the research said that these approaches are being used to develop culturally specific and sensitive processes to “guide decision-makers, health agents, leaders, and indigenous organizations in formulating appropriate crisis responses in indigenous territories.”

Equal access to essential services

COVID-19 also highlights the need for better access to health services. A collective of indigenous women groups has urged U.N. member states and other authorities to guarantee access to clean water, equal access to health care, and subsidies for economic and other support.

Advocating for and supporting these calls is a key action for the development sector — and Australian Indigenous communities are already part of a planned rollout of rapid COVID-19 testing. Yet maintaining programs and services that take into account social distancing needs is also important.

In Australia, the work of Save the Children is using new approaches to engage with Indigenous communities and vulnerable Aboriginal children.

"Australia must do all it can to protect Indigenous Australians from COVID-19, particularly people living in remote communities, and those with underlying health conditions,” Swanson said. "But it is important that these communities, particularly children, continue to receive essential services, including health care, education, and support for families and children’s wellbeing.”

In response, Save the Children has adapted its programs so children and their families can keep accessing early childhood education and development support in a culturally appropriate and safe way.

This includes delivering programs online to adhere to social distancing and travel restrictions — with respect and local leadership at the core of their new delivery model.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.