The novel coronavirus currently sweeping the globe can, of course, infect any of us. But it poses particular dangers for indigenous and forest-dwelling communities attempting to live isolated from the modern world, and who in some extreme cases fear for their very survival.
History is littered with tragic episodes of exposed communities decimated by imported disease. It's paramount, therefore, that governments make every effort to prevent a repeat. But where official action is missing, fundraising and volunteer workers have stepped in to fill the void and help save not only lives, but also the old-world know-how and intimate connection to local ecosystems that such native groups represent.
Here are some examples from around the world of measures being taken to protect indigenous communities from the pandemic:
Advocates in Brazil have been warning of an impending health crisis since the deaths last month of two Amazon-area indigenous people. Though there has been federal policy barring outsiders from entering indigenous territories since 1987 — mostly to protect the tribes from contact with communicable diseases against which they have no immunological defense — many gold prospectors continue to enter and mine illegally.
Tribal leaders and activists suspect this is how the coronavirus entered their communities. Over the course of one month, the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon Basin (COICA) estimates that at least 180 of the 600 indigenous tribes of the Amazon basin have been infected by the coronavirus, and that 33 people have died.
COICA is also leading the Amazon Emergency Fund, intended to supply the people with food, medicine and basic protective equipment, which they say regional governments failed to supply. "We cannot wait any longer for our governments... We are in danger of extinction," says José Gregorio Diaz Mirabal, general coordinator of COICA and a member of the Wakuenai Kurripaco people of Venezuela.
There is serious concern too about the spread of disease among indigenous groups in Colombia. The far-southern Amazonas region went from having zero confirmed cases to 230 in less than two weeks, and is now "by far the region with the most coronavirus cases and deaths per capita in the country," the Colombian daily El Tiempo reports.
In Ecuador, near the Peruvian border, another indigenous community — the Siekopai nation — are fleeing to the Amazon rainforest after a rise in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths, reports Al Jazeera. In an attempt to avoid infection, dozens of children and elderly Siekopai set off on canoes for Lagartococha, a large Ecuadoran wetland in the heart of the Amazon, while those who stayed behind are turning to homeopathic remedies to try to cope with the illness.
The nation of fewer than 750 people fears for its very survival following the deaths of two elders, the Ecuadoran daily El Comercio reports. "When our people were taken to medical centers, they were told it was just the flu, tonsillitis, pneumonia. They didn't even test them for COVID-19," said Justino Piaguaje, the president of the community.
After the first deaths, Piaguaje and other Siekopai leaders asked the Ecuadoran government to fence-off the community and test inhabitants but received no response.
Indigenous people living in the Amazon basin from nine different countries have joined together to create the Amazon Emergency Fund, hoping to raise $3 million in the next two weeks and $5 million throughout the month to protect the 3 million rainforest inhabitants, whose vulnerability to the novel coronavirus in compounded by lack of modern health care.
The call for an emergency fund for the Amazon people was preceded by an open letter to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro urging him to protect the country's indigenous population or risk ethnocide. The document was signed by dozens of international artists, musicians, actors, writers and scientists.
Indigenous women in Brazil wearing face masks with the inscription ""Indigenous life is important" — Photo: Lucas Silva/DPA/ZUMA
"This pandemic is not only a humanitarian emergency, it is also an environmental emergency," says Suzanne Pelletier, executive director of the foundation. "Indigenous people across the Amazon are the last line of defense against forest destruction and our best hope of mitigating climate change."
In India, meanwhile, many forest-dwelling tribal groups, also known as Scheduled Tribes, find themselves in a state of disarray with their movements restricted, yet also cut-off from the rest of the world. The news site The Wire reports that the Indian government has restricted tribal movement through the forest, which many rely on to sustain themselves through minor produce collection of things like honey, gum, bamboo, beedi leaves, broomstick grass, tamarind and Indian gooseberries, which they also sell for profit.
Groups like the Koya Tribe, which inhabits the foothills in the north of the Eastern Ghats in Andhra Pradesh, are now becoming reliant on government agencies and even a few compassionate law enforcement officials to help them get their staple foods like rice as their incomes are being decimated. Many tribes also live on settlements on the borders of what have been declared tiger reserves. Following news that tigers could also be infected by the coronavirus, the National Tiger Conservation Authority banned all human movement inside all 50 tiger reserves, leaving tribes like the Kani effectively trapped and cut-off, now completely reliant on the forest department for rations.
On the other side of the planet, in the United States, Native Americans living in the Navajo Nation, which spans portions of the Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, are facing unique challenges to their way of life as coronavirus takes hold. While the Navajo Nation has the third-highest infection rate per capita of any region in the U.S., social distancing and staying away from the elderly aren't exactly options for most Navajo people. Many extended families live under the same roof, and many also have to travel long distances to go to one of the 13 full-service grocery stores that serve a population of about 174,000 residents.
One third of reservation residents, furthermore, don't have access to running water or stable health care. And compared to parts of the reservation in other states, the Navajo Nation in Utah receives little help from the state government.
"A lot of the times, the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation kinda has to fend for itself," says Pete Sands, who coordinates a food delivery program for the Utah portion of the tribal lands. "That's the reason why I started my program."
Sands also works with the Utah Navajo Health System (UNHS), a nonprofit that was started in 2000 and offers dental and medical care to rural Navajo communities. Together, the UNHS, Sands' program and a group of volunteers are at the forefront of the response to the pandemic for Navajo people in Utah, providing staples like food, water, detergent and more to at-risk people and elders with their delivery program.