PAHO: Indigenous and Afro-descendants must be at center of COVID-19 response

If no one is to be left behind during the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts must be stepped up to ensure a strong and coordinated response with indigenous organizations and leaders, Deputy Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Mary Lou Valdez, said today.

Speaking at the first of two High-Level Regional Meetings – The Impact of COVID-19 on indigenous peoples in the region of the Americas: Perspectives and opportunities, Valdez emphasized the health inequalities faced by these populations and urged countries to avoid a “one size fits all approach.”

“The Region of the Americas is characterized by its rich multicultural and multiethnic heritage, yet indigenous and Afro-descendent populations are often subject to discrimination and exclusion, leading to health inequities,” she highlighted. Strategies that address these issues cannot be designed in isolation, “the participation of indigenous representatives as equal partners is essential.”

Almost 55 million indigenous people live in Latin America and the Caribbean and more than 7.5 million live in North America. While data on the impact of COVID-19 on these populations remains limited, factors experienced by indigenous groups, including isolation, overcrowded living conditions, lack of access to good hygiene measures and higher incidence of preexisting conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, places them at increased risk of transmission and severity of the disease.

Since the pandemic began in the region, over 168,000 cases of COVID-19 among indigenous peoples have been reported in 12 countries in the Region, including almost 3500 deaths. In areas of the Amazon basin, including Roraima and Amapa, and border areas of French Guiana, indigenous populations are over 10 times more likely to contract COVID-19 than others living in Amazon basin areas.

Francisco Cali Tzay, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, said that indigenous populations in the Region are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. “The pandemic has also exacerbated racism and stigma towards indigenous communities – accusing them of not respecting public health measures and blaming them for the high rates of infection.” Mirna Cunningham, President of the Directing Council of the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC) and Tarcila Rivera Zea, Director of the Center for Indigenous Cultures of Peru (CHIRAPAQ), also participated as panelists in the meeting.

Referring to the need to bridge gaps between traditional and western medicine, PAHO Assistant Director, Dr. Jarbas Barbosa called for a solutions-focused approach. “How can we amplify effective measures that have been implemented locally to address issues such as access to culturally sensitive primary health care services, and to ensure dialogue between indigenous leaders and health authorities?” he said.