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Indigenous Peoples

Crucial need for indigenous peoples’ participation for COVID-19 recovery

21 October 2021

Indigenous people in Mexico City, Mexico, mark 529 years of indigenous resistance to European arrival © Reuters

“COVID-19 has changed all of our lives, and taken the lives of many,” said Megan Davis, Chair of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. “This has been particularly true for indigenous peoples.”

Davis was speaking at a recent panel session at the Human Rights Council, focusing on the situation of human rights of indigenous peoples facing the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Over the past year, a number of reports, including the annual report by the Expert Mechanism, have clearly indicated the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on indigenous peoples.

Alongside the loss of life, the reports indicate a deepening of unequal access to quality healthcare and other social services. They outline the decline of the transmission of indigenous languages and traditional knowledge. Additionally, they highlight that indigenous women, children, elders and people with disabilities have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic and its consequences.

Panellists outlined the critical need for participation by indigenous people in COVID-19 response and recovery efforts: “Given the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on indigenous peoples, their participation is more critical than ever – particularly in recovery efforts and to effectively reverse the trend of growing inequalities,” said Ilze Brands Kehris, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights.

COVID-19 and indigenous peoples: governments not doing enough

More than a year after the pandemic began, there has been little or no effort by governments to consult with indigenous peoples, the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, José Franciso Calí Tzay, told the panel.

“Nationwide measures to stop the pandemic are being applied to indigenous territories without their free, prior and informed consent and without taking into account the systemic barriers faced by recipients,” said Calí Tzay.

Calí Tzay, who also presented his latest report on the issue to the Council, noted that health and financial support to indigenous peoples has been delayed in many countries.

Vaccination plans, said Calí Tzay, have often been adopted without meaningful consultations with indigenous people to ensure they are informed, to address their cultural and linguistic needs, physical isolation and the lack of healthcare infrastructures.

“Such poor vaccination plans have worsened the marginalisation and discrimination of indigenous peoples, resulting in low vaccination rates among them.”

He also expressed concern over the rise of illegal deforestation, incursions, land grabbing and violence with little government aid or oversight.

Digital divide has serious consequences

Anne Nuorgam, Chairperson of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, said that indigenous people’s lack of digital connectivity has meant they were gravely underrepresented at the virtual consultations that have taken place during the pandemic.

“The digital divide has obstructed the participation of indigenous peoples in important decision-making spaces at all levels, threatening to render them invisible and posing obstacles in exercising their rights.”

She also noted that the divide has seriously affected the futures of large numbers of indigenous children and youth who have lost more than a year of education due to cancelled classes and a lack of online connectivity. 

Nuorgam called for greater investment in closing the digital gap for indigenous peoples. “While the effects of this pandemic will eventually pass, the changes it has brought to the way we live will stay,” she said.  “Indigenous peoples must be able to reap the benefits of digital connectivity in a changed world if their full participation is to be ensured.”

Participation of indigenous peoples “critical” for COVID-19 recovery

All panellists outlined the major need for stronger efforts by governments to include indigenous peoples in their pandemic policies and approaches.

“It is critical that State recovery measures and responses are done with the free, prior, and informed consent of affected indigenous peoples, and it is essential that indigenous peoples control the COVID-19 responses in their own communities,” said Davis.

For Davis, self-determination of indigenous peoples is key. “The more autonomy indigenous peoples have and the better they are able to exercise their right to self-determination, the better they have fared during the pandemic.”

Calí Tzay underlined the importance of inclusion and participation to preserve distinct ancestral cultures, knowledge and practices. He called on governments to respect the autonomy of indigenous peoples to manage the situation locally and to provide them with information and financial support as needed.

Indigenous peoples need to be included at the early stages of contingency planning, as well as in recovery and post-pandemic decision-making processes, said Calí Tzay.

“Specifically, States should involve indigenous organizations and leaders in the design and implementation of vaccine programmes to combat anti-vaccine misinformation, address historical mistrust and promote information in indigenous languages,” he said.

Calí Tzay also urged Governments to adopt moratoriums on extractive projects impacting indigenous lands during the COVID-19 recovery phase, and to remove barriers to access to healthcare.