Indigenous-Led Responses to Covid-19: Lessons for Inclusive Innovations for the Future

by | Sep 8, 2020

Picture: “Testagem da COVID-19 no Colégio Aldeia indigena Tupinamba Amotara em Ilhéus. Foto: Divulgação” by Educação Bahia.

This post by TFP volunteer Caroline Canihan is part 2 of a 2-part series. The first part looked at how Covid-19 is impacting Indigenous communities around the world. In this second part, she explores how innovative, Indigenous-led pandemic responses can serve as models of long-term change for securing their communities’ rights, mobilising across borders, and realising a more equitable and inclusive future.

The Futures Project connects people across borders and sectors to identify the biggest challenges of the future and co-create specific, values-based solutions. The Project is grounded in the belief that true innovation stems from meaningful, global collaboration involving the participation of stakeholders whose needs are often overlooked. Responses to the Covid-19 pandemic by Indigenous groups worldwide exemplify this inclusive, action-oriented and context-specific approach to innovation. Indigenous groups have developed grassroots initiatives that provide targeted relief to their most vulnerable community members. Through networks at all levels, they disseminate public health information and call on states to provide adequate relief. Additionally, Indigenous groups have developed linguistically and culturally specific programmes to ensure they are accessible to their communities and help safeguard traditions. In addition to providing immediate relief, these Indigenous-led pandemic responses can serve as models of long-term change for securing their communities’ rights, mobilising across borders and preserving cultures in danger of disappearing.


Grassroots Initiatives

With inadequate state assistance often leaving Indigenous populations to combat the pandemic themselves, emerging grassroots initiatives highlight the necessity of relief programmes attuned to local needs. From Ecuador and Canada to Malaysia and Bangladesh, indigenous communities often implemented self-isolation measures before their governments took action. For example, communities in the Colombian and Ecuadorian Amazon isolated themselves on remote reserves after their respective governments failed to deliver medical supplies. Implementing self-isolation measures has required large-scale co-ordination: in Colombia, over 15,000 Indigenous guards organised 24-hour patrols to protect their reserves from the virus. Groups such as the Philippines’ Igorot peoples adapted traditional methods of self-isolation to prevent disease transmission and ward off spirits. The success of these early efforts stems from such inherited survival techniquesand illustrates the efficacy of community-led mobilisation.

Indigenous communities also mobilised to distribute food and medical supplies, often relying on crowd-fundingcampaigns or support from NGOs. Leaders in Cauca, Colombia organised a seed exchange between communities to strengthen each group’s food sovereignty, drawing from ancestral knowledge to plant fast-growing crops. In the Brazilian Amazon, Indigenous representatives formed an emergency committee alongside local officials and doctors to distribute food. Some groups liaise with NGOs for short-term relief; for example, Brazilian NGOs delivered food and medical supplies to Amazonian communities in addition to setting up temporary clinics. The Navajo and Hopi Families Covid-19 Relief Fund crowd-funded a full-scale emergency response, delivering care packages to the most vulnerable families across both reservations. Because of their effective community relief programmes, the Navajo Nation was able to co-ordinate the testing of 13% of the reservation compared to 4% nationally. The Pacific North West’s Lummi nation set-up telemedicine clinics, home delivery services for the elderly, and a makeshift hospital in a community centre. Tribal chairman Lawrence Solomon explains these efforts clearly prove ‘tribes are part of the solution in recovery efforts.’


Building and Strengthening Networks

Networks of Indigenous peoples are instrumental in publicising human rights abuses, calling for appropriate relief programmes and spreading public health information. First, Indigenous groups frequently publicise the effects of the virus on their communities. For example, The Indigenous Peoples Global Forum for Sustainable Development published information about effects of Covid-19 on communities throughout Africa. Similarly, Indigenous youth consistently highlight injustices exacerbated by the virus on social media. Raising awareness about the injustices Indigenous groups face worldwide can put pressure on states to enact reform. For Navajo Nation president Jonathan Nez, drawing attention to the inability of many Indigenous people to follow health guidelines without clean water can be ‘a great opportunity for us to get running water.’

Organisations such as The International Indian Treaty Council, The National Congress of American Indians, Amazon Watch and The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues call on states to provide immediate relief such as food, medical supplies, education support and financial assistance. These groups also pressure administrations to permanently improve access to healthcare, clean water and sanitation. When their requests are ignored, groups such as the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil mobilise to pursue legal action against the government for failing to safeguard their communities. These organisations stress the importance of culturally-appropriate pandemic responses, such as ensuring information is available in local languages and supporting Indigenous healthcare providers. Therefore, they emphasise the need for greater collaboration between states and Indigenous groups. Such collaboration can entail the recognition of Indigenous self-governing systems’ existing pandemic responses, the direct coordination of relief efforts with Indigenous peoples or the establishment of working groups for their communities. The Covid-19 Indigenous Women’s Collective Calland The Indigenous Women’s Organisations of Nepal call on states to address the consequences of the pandemic for Indigenous women by, for example, ensuring they are represented in decision-making processes. To combat potential long-term consequences of Covid-19, The Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact explains the need to combat racism fuelled by the pandemic and protect informal sector workers often left out of economic relief efforts.

Indigenous-led organisations also publish information to help tribes combat the spread of the virus, from updates about new outbreaks to advice on lockdown measures. For example, The Covid-19 Indigenous Health Partnership translates health guidelines into thousands of languages and offers culturally relevant guidance to tribal leaders. In the US, The National Indian Health Board compiles tribal Covid-19 response plans and community health tools with information about food security, housing, and domestic violence. Meanwhile, The Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin and The National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia are instrumental in spreading information about outbreaks and lockdown protocol through their networks. These organisations’ guidance crucially considers the diversity of Indigenous communities; for example, The International Working Group on Indigenous Peoples Living in Voluntary Isolation and Initial Contact in the Amazon and Chaco recommends protective measures for tribes both with and without a history of contact.


Linguistically and Culturally Relevant Programmes

With Indigenous groups facing real threats of extinction, linguistically and culturally specific pandemic responses are necessary for the survival of their communities and the preservation of their customs. Individuals and organisations such as the Mayan Language Academy, The Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon and The Assembly of First Nations quickly translate Covid-19 news and health guidance into thousands of local languages. They share information through the media that most effectively reach each community, from television and radio to print. Some groups integrate information about the pandemic into their cultural practices. For example, artists in Australia’s Mutitjulu community spread public health information in their language and iconography through traditional dot paintings.

Many Indigenous communities integrate cultural education and traditional customs into their pandemic responses. The Cree Literacy Network invites people to ‘Stay Home: Learn Cree’ through daily language-learning videos. The Protect the Sacred initiative encourages Native American youth to compete for prizes during lockdown by using sacred medicines, telling traditional stories and maintaining family gardens. Similarly, The Indigenous Peoples Movement publishes tips for a culturally specific self-quarantine, including practicing native languages and making traditional crafts. Besides translating health advice into local languages, community radio programmes in Mexico broadcast information about agricultural knowledge and cultural history to reduce panic among local Indigenous groups. Digital town halls are also useful for Indigenous organisations, such as IllumiNative, to spread information about Covid-19. Canadian organisationsIndigenous Climate Action and Idle No More use virtual meetings to share folklore and elders’ memories of past diseases. Additionally, The Covid-19 Indigenous Health Partnership hosts webinars to discuss mental health among Indigenous youth worldwide and promotes nutrition based on traditional recipes. Like communities that use intergenerational knowledge to implement self-isolation measures, some groups revive traditions used to combat past pandemics: women throughout North America participate in virtual jingle dances, healing practices developed by the Ojibwe peoples during the 1918-19 influenza.

Indigenous communities’ quick mobilisation, network building, use of traditional knowledge and familiarity with local problems prove governments and organisations have much to learn from these efforts in terms of pandemic response and beyond. Like these grassroots initiatives, visions for the future must be context-specific and stem from a thorough understanding of local communities’ needs. Collaborating across borders and advocating for values-based solutions to global problems are also valuable steps towards realising shared visions for the future, as shown through the work of Indigenous networks. Evidently, solutions must not only be intelligible to all but must be integrated into local cultures, ensuring communities and their traditions can thrive. From new global networks to highly organised local relief programmes, initiatives born as pandemic responses provide valuable foundations that can help Indigenous groups solve pressing problems in the future. Additionally, governments must recognise the value of these approaches whether in providing immediate relief to vulnerable populations or developing solutions to long-term global problems. Learning from Indigenous-led responses to Covid-19 can ensure innovations for the future are built on collaboration between diverse stakeholders, universal values and comprehensive understandings of communities’ needs.