COVID-19 is a critical threat to indigenous peoples, at a time when many are also struggling against man-made environmental damage and economic depredation.
In almost all the 90 countries where they live in often remote locations, many indigenous communities have deeply inadequate access to health care, clean water and sanitation. Their communal way of life can increase the likelihood of rapid contagion, although all over the world we have seen inspiring examples of indigenous communities taking measures based on their strong internal organization to limit the spreading of the virus and reduce its impacts. Those who live in more urban environments often suffer multidimensional poverty, and these harms are compounded by severe discrimination – including in the context of health-care.
In the Americas, more than 70,000 indigenous people have been infected by COVID-19 to date. Among them are almost 23,000 members of 190 indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin. Over 1,000 deaths have been recorded, including several elders with deep knowledge of ancestral traditions. They include the tragic death in Brazil this week of chief Aritana, of the Yawalapiti people.
In this vast region spanning Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, 420 or more indigenous peoples live on lands that are increasingly damaged and polluted by illegal mining, logging and slash-and-burn agriculture. Despite regulations restricting movement and economic activities, many of these illegal economic activities have continued in recent months, alongside movements by religious missionaries that also expose communities to a high risk of infection.
Indigenous peoples who live in voluntary isolation from modern societies – or who are in the initial stages of contact – may have particularly low immunity to viral infection, creating especially acute risks. Communities and peoples who have been forced off their lands are also very vulnerable, particularly those who live in trans-border territories.
In June my Office issued a Guidance Note on indigenous peoples' human rights in the context of COVID-19. It highlights promising practices adopted by several countries – many in close consultation with indigenous peoples – and emphasises practical recommendations with both immediate and longer term impact on health.
Overall, the pandemic hammers home the importance of ensuring that indigenous peoples can exercise their rights to self-government and self-determination. They must also be consulted, and should be able to participate in the formulation and implementation of public policies affecting them, through their representative entities, leaders and traditional authorities.
This is about saving lives and protecting a precious web of cultures, languages and traditional knowledge that connect us to the deep roots of humanity.
On this International Day of Indigenous Peoples, my Office pledges to work with indigenous peoples, as well as with WHO, United Nations Country Teams, UN human rights mechanisms, and States, to support better protection of their fundamental human rights.
For more information and media requests, please contact: Rupert Colville - + 41 22 917 9767 / [email protected] or Jeremy Laurence - + 41 22 917 9383 / [email protected] or Liz Throssell - + 41 22 917 9296 / [email protected] or Marta Hurtado - + 41 22 917 9466 / [email protected]