Written by Harvey Dryer

The Covid-19 pandemic has sharpened the mistreatment and exploitation of indigenous peoples across the globe, exposing and exacerbating the colonial roots of economic dependency, political marginalisation, and social exclusion felt by many indigenous groups. The experience of such issues depicts a dangerous lack of protection afforded to indigenous peoples, which is arguably birthed by neo-colonial attitudes and patterns of power. The solutions to the issues facing indigenous groups worldwide might seem elusive and even idealistic, however, this does not mean they are unattainable. 


Solidarity with indigenous groups, both at the global and local level, would help secure global health provisions for indigenous groups. At the global level, nations need to integrate the Fair Priority Model of vaccinations into the framework of intervention. Under such a model, Covid-19 vaccines would become reconceptualized as right, rather than a commodity, providing greater access to healthcare for indigenous peoples. Secondly, cooperation at the local level, exemplified by the relationship between the Maori people and New Zealand authorities, is critical to decolonise mindsets towards indigenous peoples, whilst also maximising the welfare of the most vulnerable during the pandemic. These two forms of cooperation, if simultaneously implemented, present a route to achieving global justice for indigenous peoples. 


Colonial Legacies Perpetuated by Covid-19


During the coronavirus pandemic, limited access to state stimulus packages has forced indigenous communities across the globe to become reliant on high-interest loans from private vendors (Kapaeeng Foundation, 2020: 16). These loans have become a form of economic exploitation, with indigenous peoples being compelled to give up their own subsistence resources to repay their debts or risk defaulting. For example, many Santal families from Dinajpur in Bangladesh have had to sell their harvest to pay back to money-lenders, leading to food shortages within the community (Zavaleta-Cortijo, 2020). Such harsh treatment of indigenous peoples by debtors during the Covid-19 pandemic mirrors the treatment they experienced during crises of the formal colonial epoch (Davis, 2001: 311-340). Even without the exploitative structures of formal colonial rule, debtors exercise an enormous level of unilateral control over these indigenous families, which has in some instances curtailed the economic freedoms these people hold and anchored them to the lower echelons of the social ladder.


Furthermore, many indigenous and tribal communities’ preferences in regards to the management of the pandemic, like their inclination to isolate themselves in “community bubbles” (Kaplan et al., 2020: 1728), have gone almost unrecognized and undermined by the lockdown measures of their governments. In Brazil, the spread of the disease has escalated by a desire to maintain the extraction of raw materials, which has become a threatening agent to indigenous peoples. For example, the transmission of Covid-19 to the Yanomami Indigenous Territory was presumably the result of the unregulated movement of miners in and out of the territory (Goha et al, 2020). As such, Brazil’s federal government relaxed measures are evidence of a form of “viral colonisation” whereby outsiders were permitted to enter into indigenous lands without consent, bringing a deadly disease with them (Silva, Filho & Fernandes, 2020). The failure of the Brazilian government to cooperate with indigenous groups has therefore been a direct precursor to the spread of Covid-19 to indigenous communities. 


Finally, indigenous communities have experienced greater social poverty during the Covid-19 pandemic. While digital technologies have become a central node for social contact, education and work as part of the global efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19 (Oldekop, 2020), they have also excluded those who are technologically unequipped. Limited access to such technologies has had a major impact on indigenous children (Kapaeeng Foundation, 2020: 18). With poor broadband penetration, many students belonging to indigenous communities are unable to access online lessons and resources, leading to their intellectual stagnation and potentially perpetuating the pre-existing lack of social mobility of indigenous peoples. The policies to shift activities online are thus inconsiderate of the common scarcity of digital development within indigenous communities. Such an exclusion from schooling could have negative ramifications for the level of opportunities that can be seized upon by indigenous peoples in the post-pandemic era, further cementing the underdevelopment of indigenous communities. 


The economic, political, and social ramifications of the pandemic have sharpened the struggles faced by indigenous peoples as part of the colonial legacy (Alfred & Corntassel, 2005: 601-605). Even though formal colonial structures and institutions are no longer prevalent, indigenous groups still exist without significant dignity or respect. Unilateral control of debtors, a capitalist mindset and digital underdevelopment have, overall, removed the few rights and freedoms held by most indigenous communities across the globe. The solutions to such privations must challenge the contemporary neo-colonial patterns of power, as well as the immediate threat of the virus. Such solutions will require cooperation and solidarity if they are to achieve global justice for indigenous communities. 


Solutions through Solidarity 


The European Union (EU) is leading the way in the protection of indigenous peoples’ rights during the pandemic. By building greater cooperation between states and indigenous representative bodies, the EU is promoting pluralist discussions around issues that most affect indigenous groups (“European Council of the European Union”, 2020). For example, in Suriname, the EU is working to empower Maroon tribes, who lack legal recognition of any land rights (Apapoe, 2020). As such, the EU is attempting to redouble global efforts to tackle the discrimination, racism, and inequalities facing indigenous peoples, recognising that the extreme poverty experienced by the Maroon tribes has been exacerbated and exploited during the pandemic. In doing so, the EU is attempting to become a vital pillar of support for indigenous peoples across the globe. 


The development of a vaccine is the most important tool to mitigate the acute health problems facing indigenous groups during the pandemic as it would presumably protect virtually every human from the mortal threat posed by the virus. However, the distribution of the vaccine could potentially undermine this logic as it will occur, mostly, on a national basis rather than on a global level. The marketisation of the vaccine is turning it from a global public good into a national commodity (Phelan, 2020). As a result, rather than being based on health criteria that prioritizes the most vulnerable to the virus, vaccine allocation is heavily determined by the purchasing power of nations. Individual governments are seeking to secure priority access to the vaccine for their own constituents through an Advance Purchase Agreement (APA) with vaccine manufacturers (“European Commission”, 2020) which threatens to perpetuate disparities between the global North and global South by creating inequitable access to the vaccine. 


Not only does this nationalist approach to the vaccine reinforce neo-colonial patterns of power, it could also leave indigenous peoples without access to the vaccine for a long period of time, even after initial distribution. The unequal allocation of the vaccine means that indigenous peoples will most likely endure the sufferings caused by the pandemic for longer than most states in the global North. A national solution to this global issue will fail to secure global justice for the most vulnerable indigenous groups as states will always see national citizenship, rather than vulnerability and risk, as the key determinant when allocating vaccines. Therefore, vaccine nationalism privileges the health of the few based on their nationality, leaving indigenous people with little protection against the virus.  


A Model in Search for a Solution


To ensure a just allocation of coronavirus vaccines, matters of health should be given primacy over purchasing power. The Fair Trade Model of distribution satisfies this condition by suggesting that states with access to the vaccine should release surplus vaccines to areas severely affected by the virus when their own rates of transmission are low (Emmanuel, 2020: 800). This would allow areas with high rates of transmission, cases and mortality to become the focus of the global effort to defeat Covid-19. Indigenous and tribal communities located in the hardest-hit countries and regions could then be given access to the vaccine within a shorter time frame, addressing the devastating impact the virus has had on their health and livelihoods (Meneses-Navarro, 2020). The Model would also promote closer relations between states, enhancing collaboration as well as transforming the vaccine from a commodity into a right. For those states that have failed to control the devastating impacts of the virus, the Model would also assist them in fulfilling their responsibility to protect their own citizens. The dissemination of vaccines in accordance with these principles could thus limit the mistreatment of indigenous peoples, ensuring that their rights are upheld through global action. 


As well as being the beneficiaries of aid, indigenous communities, through the application of their norms and social practices, could also act as a source of help and support during the pandemic. For example, the indigenous Maori group in New Zealand hold values such as kinship, belonging and social responsibility that they have upheld during the pandemic (Fraser, 2007: 88). Even though many Maori people lost their jobs due to the stagnation in the tourism sector, they remained committed to local communities by offering accommodation and providing meals (Carr, 2020: 495). These charitable projects exemplify the notion that indigenous peoples hold some of the answers to tackling the social troubles caused by the pandemic. By putting indigenous values and norms front and centre, indigenous networks could become a means of providing support and help, establishing a relationship of reciprocity between indigenous and external groups that would pose no burden to either community. By recognizing the contribution that indigenous peoples can make, non-indigenous peoples can build relationships of mutual respect and learning with their peers. As such, indigenously-led solidarity projects would not only help aid with recovery from the pandemic, they would also be an opportunity to help decolonise attitudes towards indigenous peoples.


A Global Problem Requires a Global Solution


The political, economic, and social effects of the coronavirus pandemic are intrinsically linked to the neo-colonial exploitation of many indigenous groups, who have experienced more acute and enduring hardships than the average person from the global North. The solution to this issue must therefore realise that the pandemic impacts certain groups more severely, that those most at risk must be at the heart of the response, and that assessments to determine the most vulnerable groups must be conducted at a global level. Only then will policies attempting to mitigate the harsh effects of Covid-19 have a meaningful impact on the lives of indigenous communities across the globe. Furthermore, indigenous norms and values can help shape policy and practice to curtail the damaging effects of the virus, as exemplified by the food deliveries of the Maori people. Giving indigenous peoples the freedom to weigh in on decisions that will impact their lives is therefore the only just solution that would restore the dignity of indigenous and tribal communities. 


Inclusion is the most effective route to achieving justice for indigenous peoples, both during and after the pandemic. However, this inclusion can only be realised through global cooperation. Vaccine nationalism has failed to secure the rights and freedoms of indigenous groups across the globe. Only by putting global cooperation at the heart of the response to the pandemic can the international community secure global justice. Such solidarity will not only help indigenous peoples fight against the pandemic, it will also help decolonise global patterns of power.




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