Indigenous peoples and the COVID-19 pandemic: a Global Overview

From the Okavango Delta in Botswana to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, how are indigenous peoples being impacted on by the COVID-19 pandemic and how has UNESCO responded?

Contagious diseases and indigenous peoples have a long and painful history. As Jared Diamond described aptly in his 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning non-fiction book, Guns, Germs and Steel, the contemporary inequalities of our planet and the vulnerabilities of indigenous peoples are, in part, tied to pandemics that were brought about by unprecedented travel and colonization. The novel coronavirus and the COVID-19 pandemic have raised again the specific vulnerabilities and resilience required of indigenous peoples. The pandemic is severely affecting indigenous peoples while it also highlights conditions of social and economic marginalization that amplify the impacts on them as compared to the general population.

On 30 January 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. On 11 March 2020, with the virus spreading rapidly in Asia, Europe and other regions, WHO declared a pandemic of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

UNESCO has responded swiftly to the pandemic while its staff simultaneously adhere to confinement and sanitary regulations of host countries. UNESCO’s COVID-19 response has mobilised all Sectors and offices as well as its important partnerships, including the Global Education Coalition and the International Coalition of Inclusive and Sustainable Cities -ICCAR.

COVID-19 has amplified the need for scientific cooperation and for strengthening the nexus between policy decisions and sound scientific knowledge and practice when dealing with a global public health crisis. UNESCO’s International Bioethics Committee and its World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) noted in a Joint Statement the increased fragility of marginalized groups in times of pandemic and the collective responsibility to protect them from any form of stigmatization and discrimination.

UNESCO’s Intersectoral Working Group on Indigenous Peoples issues worked to assemble this newsletter to describe our understanding of the pandemic, to share the voices of indigenous partners and to describe actions currently being undertaken. UNESCO is guided by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) and the UNESCO Policy on engaging with indigenous peoples (2017). The purpose of the newsletter is to document the specific cooperation by UNESCO with indigenous peoples with the intention to promote a spirit of inclusion, respect, solidarity and leaving no one behind.

Indigenous peoples are recognized in UN instruments as the guardians of much of the planet’s biological, cultural and linguistic diversity. Despite the fact of their important roles in nature and culture, their societies and living conditions are still among the most vulnerable in the world. The crisis caused by COVID-19 has affected their communities in particular ways, notably when the virus has reached into remote areas with limited access to quality public services such as health and education.

At the outset of the pandemic, UNESCO hosted major online meetings of Ministers of Science and Ministers of Culture to promote international cooperation and solidarity. UNESCO draws on its expertise and partnerships to help carry the burden of the pandemic and improve the quality of responses and cooperation. In alignment within its strategic plan and programme priorities, UNESCO supports the new forms of participation in cultural life and exchanges on how best to counter exclusion, while promoting global cooperation on scientific knowledge including through new initiatives on Open Science.

The pandemic has highlighted that continuity of education must be ensured when many children cannot physically go to school. For children without access to electricity or adequate technology, this has been difficult or impossible. Further, we have been reminded that the information highway does not ensure accurate and reliable information gets into the fast lane. Misinformation and disinformation circulate rapidly with undesirable consequences. UNESCO has prioritized improved access to accurate and reliable information, encouraging these to be available in languages that are best understood by the users.

The pandemic has exposed certain structural vulnerabilities and inequalities within and between countries. Within countries, the pandemic has further revealed inequalities faced by vulnerable groups, which may include indigenous peoples, in their enjoyment of human rights such as access to health care, information in languages that are best understood, and participation in decision-making, cultural life, national education and the economy. Specific vulnerabilities of indigenous peoples may be understood through the lens of their capacity to engage in cultural and livelihood practices, social organisation and initiatives that aim to deal with the current crisis. Some of the traditional knowledge and wellness practices, such as voluntary isolation, home-based care, economic solidarity and enclosure of their territories, may be particularly relevant today.

During these difficult times, UNESCO has been inspired to see an outpouring of cooperation and solidarity that is nourished by human values, culture and knowledge from people in very different contexts all over the planet. In the news item on our partnership with an African indigenous peoples’ network, we saw that indigenous peoples are helping each other; reaching out to remote communities and promoting solidarity across borders.

The response to the pandemic has entailed some degree of suspension of civil, political, social, economic, cultural or linguistic rights – the rights underpinned by the mandate and mechanisms of the United Nations. Important questions have been posed and reverberate globally: What is in the public good? How do we protect the most vulnerable parts of society? Does a national emergency response require differentiation to accommodate diverse local contexts? What role does culture play during a health crisis? How do we make the best use of available knowledge and resources when health, education and economic systems are under strain?

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