Global Human Rights Defence

An Eternal Struggle: The Plight of Indigenous Peoples in the Time of COVID-19

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[1] 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, [2]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[1], 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  [3]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.

Authors: Sophia Lozano, Yasmina Al Ammari, Bhakti Madanal and Firdes Shevket


Allan, B. & Smylie, J. (2015). First Peoples, second class treatment: The role of racism in the health and well-being of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Toronto, ON: the Wellesley Institute.

Artist, M. (2021). COVID-19 recovery in Caribbean SIDS (Knowledge Series Inclusive).UNESCO.

Braveman, P. A., Kumanyika, S., Fielding, J., Laveist, T., Borrell, L. N., Manderscheid, R., & Troutman, A. (2011). Health disparities and health equity: the issue is justice. American journal of public health101 Suppl 1(Suppl 1), S149–S155.

Boxer, C. R. (1990). The Dutch Seaborne Empire: 1600 – 1800 (Repr). Penguin Books.

COVID-19 and Indigenous peoples. (n.d.). United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Retrieved October 8, 2021, from


COVID-19: Inaction and Lack of Funds Threatens Over Three Million Indigenous People and Over 400 Ethnic Groups in the Amazon. (n.d.). Amazon Watch. Retrieved October 8, 2021, from

DW News (2020, April 21). How Corona affects indigenous people|COVID-19 Special. [News]. DW News.

Indigenous Corporate Training (2020, August 13). The Impact Of COVID-19 On Indigenous Cultural Continuity. Indigenous Corporate Training Inc

Indigenous people are most vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus in Latin America. (2020, March 30). Mongabay Environmental News.

Lane, R. (2020). The Impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous Peoples (Policy Brief 70). UN DESA, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Marshall, E. (2020, April 15). During Covid-19, deforestation rises and the Amazon is left exposed. The Brazilian Report   

Nunn, N., & Qian, N. (2010). The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and

Ideas. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 24(2), 163–188.

Smallpox and the Conquest of Mexico. (2018, February 28). Past Medical History.

UNDP, United Nations Development Programme. (2021). Digital Socioeconomic Impact Assessment of COVID-19  among Indigenous Households in Suriname.


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. 

Peruvian Anthropologist

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Coordinator - Tibet Team

Mandakini graduated with honours from the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. Her team analyses the human rights violations faced by Tibetans through a legal lens.

Kenza Mena
Team Coordinator -China

Kenza Mena has expertise in international criminal law since she is currently pursuing a last-year Master’s degree in International Criminal Justice at Paris II Panthéon-Assas and obtained with honors cum laude an LLM in International and Transnational Criminal Law from the University of Amsterdam. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in French and Anglo-American law. 

Since September 2021, she has been the coordinator of Team China at GHRD, a country where violations of human rights, even international crimes, are frequently perpetrated by representatives of the State. Within Team China, awareness is also raised on discrimination that Chinese women and minorities in the country and, more generally, Chinese people around the world are facing.

Kenza believes that the primary key step to tackle atrocities perpetrated around the world is advocacy and promotion of human rights.

Aimilina Sarafi
Pakistan Coordinator

Aimilina Sarafi holds a Bachelor’s degree cum laude in International Relations and Organisations from Leiden University and is currently pursuing a Double Legal Master’s degree (LLM) in Public International Law and International Criminal Law at the University of Amsterdam.
She is an active advocate for the human rights of all peoples in her community and is passionate about creating a better world for future generations. Aimilina is the coordinator for the GHRD team of Pakistan, in which human rights violations of minority communities in Pakistan are investigated and legally evaluated based on international human rights legal standards.
Her team is working on raising awareness on the plight of minority communities such as women, children, religious and ethnic minorities within Pakistan.

Lukas Mitidieri
Coordinator & Head Researcher- Bangladesh

Lucas Mitidieri is currently pursuing his bachelor’s degree in International Relations at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). As the GHRD Bangladesh Team Coordinator, he advocates for human rights and monitors violations across all minorities and marginalized groups in Bangladesh. Lucas believes that the fight for International Human Rights is the key to a world with better social justice and greater equality.

Nicole Hutchinson
Editorial Team Lead

Nicole has an MSc in International Development Studies with a focus on migration. She is passionate about promoting human rights and fighting poverty through advocacy and empowering human choice. Nicole believes that even the simplest social justice efforts, when properly nurtured, can bring about radical and positive change worldwide.

Gabriela Johannen
Coordinator & Head Researcher – India

Gabriela Johannen is a lawyer admitted to the German bar and holds extensive knowledge in the fields of human rights, refugee law, and international law. After working for various courts and law firms in her home country, she decided to obtain an LL.M. degree from Utrecht University where she studied Public International Law with a special focus on Human Rights. Additionally, while working as a pro-bono legal advisor for refugees, she expanded her knowledge in the fields of refugee law and migration.

Gabriela is the coordinator and head researcher for GHRD India, a country, she has had a personal connection with since childhood. Her primary focus is to raise awareness for the severe human rights violations against minorities and marginalized groups that continue to occur on a daily basis in India. By emphasizing the happenings and educating the general public, she hopes to create a better world for future generations.

João Victor
Coordinator & Head Researcher – International Justice

João Victor is a young Brazilian lawyer who leads our team of International Justice and Human Rights. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Law from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and possesses over 5 years of experience in dealing with Human Rights and International Law issues both in Brazil and internationally, including the protection of refugees’ rights and the strengthening of accountability measures against torture crimes.

João has an extensive research engagement with subjects related to International Justice in general, and more specifically with the study of the jurisprudence of Human Rights Courts regarding the rise of populist and anti-terrorist measures taken by national governments. He is also interested in the different impacts that new technologies may provoke on the maintenance of Human Rights online, and how enforcing the due diligence rules among private technology companies might secure these rights against gross Human Rights violations.

Célinne Bodinger
Environment and Human Rights Coordinator

As the Environment and Human Rights Coordinator, Célinne is passionate about the health of our planet and every life on it.

Angela Roncetti
Team Coordinator and Head Researcher- South America

Angela holds a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B) from Vitória Law School (FDV) in Brazil. Her research combines more than five years of experience conducting debates and studies on the rights of homeless people, the elderly, children, and refugees. Besides that, she also volunteers in a social project called Sou Diferente (I am Different in English), where she coordinates and takes part in actions aimed at the assistance and the emancipation of vulnerable groups in the cities of the metropolitan area of Espírito Santo state (Brazil).

Lina Borchardt
Team Head (Promotions)

She is currently heading the Promotions Team and University Chapter of Global Human Rights Defence. Her background is the one of European and International Law, which I am studying in The Hague. She has previously gained experience at Women´s Rights organizations in Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey over the past years.
She has been working for Global Human Rights Defence in the Netherlands since 2020. Her focus now is concentrated on the Human Rights and Minorities Film Festival and the cooperation of GHRD with students across the country.

Pedro Ivo Oliveira
Team Coordinator and Researcher

Pedro holds an extensive background in Human Rights, especially in Global Health, LGBTQ+ issues, and HIV and AIDS. He is currently finishing his Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations and Affairs at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Moreover, he successfully attended the Bilingual Summer School in Human Rights Education promoted by the Federal University of Minas Gerais and the Association of Universities of the Montevideo Group. Besides, Pedro Ivo has a diversified professional background, collecting experiences in many NGOs and projects.

With outstanding leadership abilities, in 2021, Pedro Ivo was the Secretary-General of the 22nd edition of the biggest UN Model in Latin America: the MINIONU. Fluent in Portuguese, English, and Spanish, Pedro Ivo is the Team Coordinator and Head Researcher of the Team Africa at Global Human Rights Defence. Hence, his focus is to empower his team from many parts of the world about the Human Rights Situation in the African continent, meanwhile having a humanized approach.

Alessandro Cosmo
GHRD Youth Ambassador
(European Union)

Alessandro Cosmo obtained his B.A. with Honors from Leiden University College where he studied International Law with a minor in Social and Business Entrepreneurship. He is currently pursuing an LL.M. in Public International Law at Utrecht University with a specialization in Conflict and Security. 
As GHRD’s E.U. Youth Ambassador, Alessandro’s two main focuses are to broaden the Defence’s reach within E.U. institutions and political parties, as well as mediate relations between human rights organizations abroad seeking European funding. 
Alessandro believes that human rights advocacy requires grass-roots initiatives where victims’ voices are amplified and not paraphrased or spoken for. He will therefore act on this agenda when representing Global Human Rights Defence domestically and abroad

Veronica Delgado
Team Coordinator and Researcher- Japan, Sri Lanka & Tibet

Veronica is a Colombian lawyer who leads our team of Japan, Sri Lanka and Tibet. She holds a master’s degree in Public International Law from Utrecht University. She has experience in Colombian law firms. Here she represented clients before constitutional courts. She also outlined legal concepts to state entities such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ombudsman’s Office on international law issues.

Veronica has an extensive research background with subjects related to public international law. She worked as an assistant researcher for more than two years for the Externado University of Colombia. Here she undertook in-depth research on constitutional, business, and human rights law issues. She was involved with consultancy services with the Colombian Army regarding transitional justice. 

Wiktoria Walczyk
Coordinator & Head Researcher (Nepal & Indonesia)

Wiktoria Walczyk has joined GHRD in June 2020 as a legal intern. She is currently coordinator and head researcher of Team Nepal and Indonesia. She has an extensive legal knowledge concerning international human rights and is passionate about children’s and minorities’ rights. Wiktoria has obtained her LL.B. in International & European Law and she specialised in Public International Law & Human Rights at The Hague University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. Moreover, she is pursuing her LL.M. in International & European Law and focusing on Modern Human Rights Law specialisation at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. In order to gain an essential legal experience, Wiktoria has also joined Credit Suisse’s 2021 General Counsel Graduate First Program where she is conducting her legal training and discovering the banking world. She would like to make a significant impact when it comes to the protection of fundamental human rights around the world, especially with regard to child labour. 

Fairuz Sewbaks
Coordinator and Head Researcher

Fairuz Sewbaks holds extensive legal knowledge regarding international human rights, with a specific focus on human rights dealings taking place in continental Africa. She holds a bachelor’s degree from The Hague University in public international law and international human rights and successfully followed advanced human rights courses at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. She furthermore participated in the Istanbul Summer School where she was educated about the role of epidemics and pandemics in light of human rights.


Fairuz is the coordinator and head researcher for GHRD Africa. Her primary focus is to establish and coordinate long-term research projects regarding the differentiating human rights dealings of vulnerable and marginalized groups in continental Africa, as well as conducting individual research projects.

Priya Lachmansingh
Coordinator and Head Researcher, Political Advisor
(Asia & America)

Priya Lachmansingh is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in International & European
Law at the Hague University of Applied Science.
As GHRD’s Asia & America human rights coordinator and GHRD Political Advisor, Priya’s
prominent focus is to highlight human rights violations targeted against minority and
marginalized groups in Asia and America and to broaden GHRD reach within Dutch political
parties and as well seek domestic funding.

Jasmann Chatwal
Team Coordinator & Head Coordinator: North America

Jasmann is a political science student at Leiden University who joined GHRD in May 2021 as an intern in team Pakistan. Now, she is the team coordinator for North America and is responsible for coordinating the documentation of human rights violations in USA, Canada, and America.