The Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has indiscriminately affected various groups of people across the world. Its short and long term impact has and undoubtedly will continue to disrupt and change every aspect of our lives. However, there is a palpable bias in how the disease threatens and negatively impacts the approximately three hundred and seventy to five hundred million Indigenous people worldwide, no less the Indigenous people of the Surinamese Amazon.
This article aims to explore the various, complex, and intertwining ways in which Indigenous communities have been impacted by the now infamous Coronavirus by posing the following question: How does the COVID-19 Pandemic Impact Indigenous Communities?
To form a response, this paper seeks to (i) uncover the history of Indigenous peoples and infectious disease, (ii) explore how particular conditions of Indigenous peoples exacerbate their struggle in times of crisis, and (iii) delineate the impacts and consequences the pandemic will inevitably have on Indigenous peoples.
Legacy of Colonialism
‘Man’s inhumanity to man just about reached its limits in Suriname’ (Boxer, 1965, pp. 271-272).
The grave struggle of Indigenous peoples against infectious diseases begins most prominently in what scholars term the ‘Age of Discovery’. The Age of Discovery saw the exploration and later colonization of already-inhabited regions of the world by, primarily, Europeans in the 15th century. This period saw the world transform from a litter of noncontiguous, isolated communities into a conglomerate of communities that interacted and exchanged ideas, goods, people, fauna and flora, and diseases. Such interactions have yet to come to a halt (Nunn & Qian, 2010).
It is one of the primary consequences of such exchanges, particularly that of infectious diseases, that concerns this paper. The effect that it has had on Indigenous communities, particularly in the New World, is an incredibly well-documented feat. For example, in the 16th century, Spanish conquerors, with ambitions to claim American territory for Spain, were responsible for introducing Smallpox to the region. By 1568, and across the new world, the virus brought over by colonists caused the death of as many as forty to fifty million Indigenous people (Smallpox and the Conquest of Mexico, 2018).
It was not only the introduction of infectious diseases, however, that would plague and disadvantage Indigenous peoples for centuries to come. The colonization itself, which disrupted the social fabric of many Indigenous communities around the world, would come to see intergenerational and concentrated poverty, discrimination, and stigmatization, forced assimilation, relocation onto densely-populated reservations, poor physical health, and an overall shorter life expectancy (Allan & Smylie, 2015; Braveman et al., 2011). According to historian Sir Charles R. Boxer (1965), the poor treatment of peoples in Suriname by colonizers had ‘just about reached its limits’ (Boxer, 1965, pp. 271-272). In Suriname, as in other parts of South America, practices of slavery, for example, lead to the crystallization of the status of Afro and Indigenous Surinamese people in society.
Whether consciously or not, colonization has deprived Indigenous peoples of the very conditions required to confront crises appropriately – no less yet another infectious disease that has claimed the lives of many. This history of colonization has unquestionably led to Indigenous Peoples’ increased vulnerability to disease – most notably by means of disenfranchisement and increasing their social and economic vulnerability.
Indigenous Health Inequality: Key Determinants In addition to and as a consequence of the perils of colonization, the lack of access to basic services like healthcare, clean water and food for Indigenous people also increase their vulnerability towards communicable and non-communicable diseases. According to Beatriz Huertas, indigenous peoples face a higher risk of COVID-19 due to the inefficient and sheer lack of health care services (Indigenous people are most vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus in Latin America, 2020). A crucial determinant is the lack of healthcare services and access to educational services for indigenous peoples. According to Francinara Baré, the coordinator of the Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), it is observed that due to structural discrimination and exploitation of natural resources, the lives of indigenous people are under threat. She stresses the “limited access to public health and education services, as well as the violence and discrimination which is threatening not only the permanence of our peoples but our knowledge of the conservation of the planet.” (COVID-19: Inaction and Lack of Funds Threatens Over Three Million Indigenous People and Over 400 Ethnic Groups in the Amazon, n.d.).
In addition to lack of proper health care and access to resources, the disproportionate socio-economic marginalization of indigenous peoples also places them at a vulnerable juncture during the pandemic. Furthermore, it is noted that indigenous people in voluntary isolation or rather those whose habitats are located in “hard-to-access” places are of concern as they are very vulnerable to the spread of the virus. In Suriname, a high-risk area is defined to be one where there are no clinics. Furthermore, it is perceived that these areas are also much more restricted to attaining medical resources in Suriname. Due to their location, it is difficult to provide the already limited and scarce amount of health care services. Therefore, the government must ensure that sanitary measures are being taken for such communities.
Furthermore, various reports highlight that the cultural and traditional practices of indigenous communities also contribute to their vulnerability towards the pandemic (COVID-19 and Indigenous peoples, n.d.). It is acknowledged that most of the communities gather in large numbers to mark special occasions and therefore can increase the spread of the virus. However, it should be noted that the root of the issue is not traditional practices and indigenous culture per se but rather the limited education and resources provided to these communities. Therefore, States must take proper action and implement educational facilities and provide safety precautions guidelines to inform the communities regarding the dangers of the virus while also supplying them with the adequate resources to be able to follow guidelines such as social distancing. The community leaders can then organize events that are safe and also continue to foster a sense of belonging and culture for their people.
Cultural Preservation in Light of the Pandemic
Another consequence of COVID-19 experienced by the indigenous groups is the loss of their seniors or elders. As such, indigenous elders are more likely to have underlying health conditions; hence the impact of the virus is devastating and concerning (Indigenous Corporate Training, 2020). This, combined with the commonly experienced, in the case of some indigenous communities, multi-generational and overcrowded households, increases the spread of COVID-19 and makes elders more prone to infection (Lane, 2020, p.2). The indigenous communities would lose their elders and, most importantly for them, lose the keepers of their culture. It is important to reiterate that it is the indigenous culture that defines the indigenous groups, governs them, and is part of their collective identity (Indigenous Corporate Training, 2020). Amadou Bâ even more rightfully underlines this by stating:
“Whenever an elder dies, a library burns down.”
Therefore, the consequences of COVID-19 on indigenous elders are also cultural, as elders’ key role as the last remaining bastions of traditional knowledge is to keep, preserve, teach and pass down for generations conservation of biodiversity, indigenous traditions, and customs, ceremonies, songs, cultural practice, etc. (Lane, 2020, p.2). The indigenous communities’ practice of sharing information is oral and often takes place in gatherings. However, the limitation imposed on the size of such gatherings, owing to the virus, is having a real and significant impact, as that circumscribes them from carrying out their ceremonies, traditional and cultural activities (Indigenous Corporate Training, 2020). In Suriname, almost 100 percent of households have at least one member 50 years or older. Moreover, 14% of households are composed exclusively of adults over 50 years age (UNDP, 2021). Therefore, these estimates provide the potential cultural implications of COVID-19 in case of a loss of one indigenous senior. Subsequently, the indigenous elderly deserve special attention, and Suriname should take special measures to prevent them accordingly.
Unemployment and Loss of Livelihood Among Indigenous Communities
As if the indigenous peoples were not already encountering food insecurity, in light of the ongoing loss of their ancestral lands and territories, they are also faced with the loss of their livelihoods. To begin with, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) published its COVID-19 socio-economic impact assessment in Suriname, and according to its study, the pandemic has exacerbated unemployment rates, exclusion, and poverty (UNDP, 2021). One of the key contributing factors to the rising unemployment is that in the absence of government action, village leaders decided to implement their own preventative measures, namely, to isolate their communities, leaving their villages behind (Artist, 2021, pp.34-35). Although many indigenous peoples in Suriname are now working in the informal economy, they have to rely primarily on income from markets, handicrafts, seasonal work, and tourism, which have also been affected by COVID-19 (Lane, 2020, p.1). As lockdowns have been continuously extended with no guaranteed end in sight, the already precarious situation of the indigenous communities has worsened, creating tensions and sparking social conflicts within the communities (Artist, 2021, pp.34-35). Consequently, in Suriname that has led to 43% of indigenous households losing their income since the pandemic’s start (UNDP, 2021). The Kaliña are one of the most disproportionately affected peoples with 58%, followed by the Lokono, with 46%, and the Wayana with 29.1% reporting income loss (UNDP, 2021). Henceforward, the socio-economic implications of the virus for the indigenous communities should be placed at the top of Suriname’s agenda, which should strive to provide employment to specifically indigenous households.
Deforestation and Criminal Activity During the Pandemic
Additionally, since indigenous communities have shown little resistance to viruses of all kinds, some of them have withdrawn deep into the forests to live in complete isolation to protect themselves from outsiders. However, this has unfortunately welcomed foreign criminals in the Amazon rainforest, who, with little remorse or consideration, have begun taking advantage of the retreat of the indigenous people to destroy parts of the rainforest (DW News, 2020). While the Amazon is left exposed and governments choose to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, deforestation of the Amazon rainforest has increased by 64% during the COVID-19 pandemic (Marshall, 2020). What is even more concerning is that the criminals not only carry out gold-mining activities, logging, and illegal hunting – which are life-threatening for the indigenous peoples – but they also bring diseases with them (DW News, 2020). The socioeconomic impact assessment conducted in Suriname also reports on the urgent need of halting such criminals, even though in Suriname, the Amazonian rainforest takes only 2% of coverage (UNDP, 2021). Hence, all stakeholders, including Suriname should cater for upholding both the human rights and environmental rights of the indigenous communities and for saving the world’s richest and most-varied biological reservoir: the Amazon rainforest.
In summary, Indigenous people, who already suffer tremendously under the negligence of the States they live in, have had their struggles exponentially exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. What the pandemic has done within Indigenous communities and around the world is reveal the shortcoming of virtually every institution and system. For the case of Suriname, this is no different. The State of Suriname must act, in every capacity, to ensure that the livelihood of the Indigenous people is preserved – and it must do so now.
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The Age of Discovery refers to the Early Modern Period in which (mostly) Europeans explored and colonized various regions across the world.
The New World is a term used to refer to the areas in the Western Hemisphere, including the Americas and Australia. Those regions are also the areas in which (i) colonization most frequently occurred, and (ii) where settler colonies were later formed.