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Homeland Security

Indigenous Peoples Face Critical Threat from COVID-19 as Cultural, Political Rights Erode

By Lisa Schlein August 09, 2020

The United Nations warns COVID-19 poses a critical threat to hundreds of millions of indigenous people worldwide. To mark the International Day of the World's Indigenous People, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is calling on countries to respond to their needs and to respect their cultural, social and political rights.

Many of the more than 476 million indigenous people around the world now live in remote locations. Their traditional way of life and distance from heavily populated areas have largely insulated them from many diseases commonly circulating.

However, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres notes that throughout history, indigenous peoples have been decimated by diseases brought from elsewhere, to which they had no immunity. Unfortunately, the coronavirus is following the same trajectory.

The U.N. chief says the inequalities, stigmatization and discrimination to which indigenous peoples are subjected are helping to spread the coronavirus through their communities. He says limited access to healthcare, clean water and sanitation makes it difficult to contain the disease.

"Indigenous peoples work primarily in traditional occupations and subsistence economies or in the informal sector," he said. "They have all been adversely affected by the pandemic. Indigenous women, who are often the main providers of food and nutrition for their families, have been particularly hard hit with the closures of markets for handicrafts, produce and other goods."

The U.N. reports COVID-19 has infected more than 70,000 indigenous people in the Americas, the epicenter of the pandemic. Among them, it says are nearly 23,000 members of 190 indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin. More than 1,000 have lost their lives.

The Amazon and other tropical forests that are home to indigenous peoples have suffered environmental damage and economic deprivation. Guterres says these people are at the forefront in demanding environmental and climate action to protect their precious reserves.

"Lapsed enforcement of environmental protections during the crisis has brought increasing encroachment on indigenous peoples' territories by illegal miners and loggers. Many indigenous people have been victims of threats and violence, and many have lost their lives in the face of such threats," he said.

The United Nations says indigenous peoples will have a better chance of tackling the coronavirus if they can exercise their rights to self-government and self-determination. The world body is calling for universal respect and protection of their inalienable rights.

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