Understanding the Impacts of Covid-19 on Indigenous Peoples: Part 1

by | Aug 25, 2020

This post by TFP volunteer Caroline Canihan is part 1 of a 2-part series. This first part looks at how Covid-19 is impacting Indigenous communities around the world. Part 2 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.

Image source: public health announcement in Shiwiar langauge.

Covid-19 has had catastrophic effects on Indigenous communities worldwide, with reports that Indigenous peoples in the U.S. are dying at up to ten times the rate of white Americans. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples outlines the minimum standards for the wellbeing of Indigenous peoples worldwide; these include access to education, healthcare, representation, land rights and protection from discrimination. However, the pandemic highlights that persistent inequalities and state neglect result in Indigenous peoples disproportionately lacking access to these basic needs.

Indigenous peoples are especially vulnerable to Covid-19 as many cannot access health facilities, clean water, sufficient food or information in their languages. Additionally, state pandemic responses often do not consider specific needs of Indigenous groups arising from their geographies, cultures, languages and economies. The difficulties tribes face throughout the Amazon, Chile, Mexico and the United States are indicative of challenges for Indigenous groups globally. These persistent inequalities highlight the need for governments and organisations to work closely with Indigenous groups to implement effective, culturally relevant projects that envision and realise a more equitable future for all.

The Amazon

As the Covid-19 mortality rate among Brazilian Indigenous communities rises to at least 150% above the nation’s average, up to 78 isolated Amazonian tribes without immunity to infectious diseases are among the most vulnerable. These communities fear losing Elders, along with their historical, medicinal and cultural knowledge. Having already lost 10 Elders to the virus, Munduruku leader Alessandra Munduruku laments, ‘it’s like a library is being burned’.

The extraction of resources from the rainforest, coupled with chronically underfunded and inaccessible health centres, heightens the risks of Covid-19 for Amazonian communities. Although a joint statement organised by The Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin called for an immediate end to the entry of foreigners during the pandemic, the looting of resources from the rainforest continues. The shortage of staff and medical supplies in local healthcare facilities is another major challenge throughout the Amazon, with medical workers struggling to transport patients to clinics up to 36 hours from their settlements. Despite communities’ social distancing efforts, they remain at high risk due to insufficient access to healthcare, in addition to a lack of information in local languages, clean water or sanitation.

Additionally, states’ health guidelines are often inappropriate and insufficient for Amazonian communities. Isolation is impossible where homes can house dozens of people and traditions involve sharing food. Rainforest communities who depend on trade for food and supplies face starvation or possible contamination without promised government relief. As a statement by Amazon Watch sums up, the struggles Amazonian communities currently face expose the need to consider ‘the geographic, socioeconomic, cultural and environmental realities of Indigenous peoples’.


Chile’s Indigenous peoples account for 9% of the population, 84% of which are Mapuche; however, their absence from the constitution complicates efforts to safeguard their land and human rights. La Araucanía, the province with the largest Indigenous population, remains impoverished following centuries of state conflict with the Mapuche. Logging has caused significant drought and groundwater pollution, while the privatisation of water further reduces rural settlements’ access to water. The takeover of Mapuche land contributes to high poverty rates, as families are forced into smaller settlements without space to plant crops. A lack of medical supplies and emergency vehicles makes fighting off Covid-19 outbreaks extremely difficult for rural communities. The few public health centres in Mapuche territories are staffed only with a nurse, while a doctor visits fortnightly.

Dr. Nelson Vergara, the head of the First Nations department at Chile’s medical union, argues the government’s pandemic response is ‘clearly designed for Euro-descendant urban populations’: rural Indigenous peoples ‘cannot simply stay indoors.’ The merit of this claim is illustrated by the state fund to support Mapuche businesses: the application process is entirely online and thus inaccessible for rural communities without internet access. While authorities translated some documents into the Mapuche language, literacy rates and differences in orthography between communities render these efforts insufficient. These communities’ economies, in which 40% of people hold down informal employment, were severely impacted by travel restrictions: Mapuche women selling vegetables on the street were violently cleared out by police. When state relief is available, it is often woefully inadequate. Due to school closures, many children lacked the daily meal they depended on. The state gave children food packages designed to last one month, yet the packages barely provided enough food for a few days. Communities mobilised to stockpile food and distribute donations; however, they remain at risk as this temporary relief runs out. Mapuche activist Calfin Lafenche explains more long-term change depends on strengthening policy that recognises Indigenous rights.


With 20% of Mexicans identifying as Indigenous and speaking 62 languages, existing disparities in access to public health information and education are exacerbated by the pandemic. Many Indigenous communities lack running water, clinics with basic supplies, and internet access with which to apply for government assistance. A spokesperson for Michoacan’s Supreme Indigenous Council explains, ‘these are historical problems, and now with the Coronavirus […] they’ve become more critical.’ Despite state backlash over restricting transit, autonomous Indigenous communities such as the Zapatistas shut their villages several weeks before government action, citing ‘the frivolous irresponsibility and lack of seriousness from bad governments.’

Although the state launched an online Covid-19 information campaign available in many languages and dialects, half of Indigenous households lack internet access. The National Telecommunications Institute admits the state is ‘falling short in guaranteeing people their constitutional right to access to information.’ Indigenous groups also fear existing inequalities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students will increase as the former cannot fully take advantage of the state’s remote learning program, much of which relies on 4G access. The state provides some lessons in 15 Indigenous languages via radio in rural areas, yet lessons in urban areas are predominately in Spanish. Monolingual learning materials could push children to abandon endangered languages because of their perceived disadvantage. Some fear unequal access to remote learning coupled with increased economic insecurity will cause a spike in school drop-out rates, as parents are forced to send their children to work. Indigenous groups hope the distance-learning programme will prove internet access is a human right, and suggest teachers provide feedback to the government regarding the programme’s viability in each Indigenous community.

The United States

Despite its treaty obligations to fund basic services, the US government has consistently failed to provide adequate healthcare, education, infrastructure and clean water for Indigenous tribes. For example, the Navajo Nation’s 332,000 people have 13 grocery stores and 6 hospitals, while one third of residents lack running water or electricity. Activist Crystal Echo Hawk explains, ‘it’s hundreds of years of systemic racism, chronic underfunding and discrimination […] that have really created limited access to healthcare and other basic necessities.’ Community members are also vulnerable due to their weakened immune systems caused by air pollution from nearby power plants and mines. These factors have led to the Navajo Nation having a higher per-capita infection rate than any US state. Preventative measures like hand-washing are challenging, with the closure of government water distribution points forcing residents to travel up to 40 miles for clean water. Furthermore, the Nation was forced to sue the government in order to receive Covid-19 relief, which finally arrived six weeks late. In Massachusetts the government revoked a Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s land rights, both endangering the community and shifting their focus away from pandemic relief. Clearly, the exploitation of Indigenous land not only threatens communities’ economies and cultures but also their health. Ultimately, failures to realise Indigenous rights highlight the necessity of foregrounding Indigenous perspectives to foster greater understanding of these groups’ struggles.


As global discussion shifts to the future post-pandemic, the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives is vital for the creation of a healthier, more equal future. The Futures Project brings people together to develop inclusive, values-based visions for the future and the creative projects that realise them. Creating these visions requires close collaboration with all historically disenfranchised populations to ensure progress stems from universal values and shared visions for the future. As we work towards the goals of the UN’s Agenda 2030, Indigenous perspectives are crucial in co-creating solutions for global problems from climate change to hunger. As Calfin Lafenche explains, ‘an understanding of the importance of Traditional community, knowledge of crops, the protection of biodiverse spaces, and the importance of water […] must begin to be cultivated in non-Indigenous society.’ Indigenous peoples are already developing creative, culturally relevant and geographically specific pandemic responses that address the needs of the most vulnerable. With greater Indigenous representation in decision-making processes, governments and organisations can learn from these projects while building more sustainable and just societies.