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Gustavo Cacho

COVID-19 and the resilience of indigenous peoples

- The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the resilience of indigenous peoples around the world, in what way?

COVID-19 and the resilience of indigenous peoples

Since 1994, every August 9 marks the International Day of Indigenous Peoples. The main theme of this year's event was COVID-19 and the resilience of indigenous peoples. Through different virtual conferences in which indigenous organizations, UN agencies, Member States, civil society and interested parties participated. Innovative ways in which indigenous peoples continue to resist and demonstrate their strength in the face of the pandemic, as well as the rest of the threats to their survival, were discussed.[1]

With approximately 851 thousand deaths and close to 25.5 million infections recorded to date[2], the coronavirus pandemic is affecting the populations of each country. Plus the effect is not the same in all. Since developing countries and those in a crisis situation are those that are and will continue to suffer the greatest deterioration. In such a scenario, the most vulnerable sectors of the population are women; people dependent on the informal economy; disabled; refugees; displaced persons and the rest of the minorities, particularly the native communities.[3]

Tikuna people in Leticia, department of Amazonas, Colombia. Source: Atalayar.

According to United Nations data, there are around 476 million indigenous people living in 90 countries. Belonging to approximately 5,000 different groups, they represent just over 5 percent of the world's population and 15 percent of the poorest. This is visible in that they have poor access to health care, and in the case of having nearby local medical facilities, they are poorly equipped and/or understaffed; suffer from higher rates of communicable and non-communicable diseases; they lack access to essential services and key products for preventive measures such as clean water, soap, disinfectant, among others.[4]

The following table serves to exemplify the mentioned problem. It shows that in Mexico the percentage of deaths from COVID-19 in patients who speak an indigenous language and are hospitalized is much higher than in the population that does not speak it. The mortality of the first group is 17.3%, while that of the latter is 10.8%.[5]

Source: Process.

Unfortunately, such circumstances are not the only dangers to their integrity, as they continue to face stigma; discrimination; extreme poverty; forced displacements (such as the present case of 1,236 Tzotzil people in the municipality of Chalchihuitán, Chiapas)[6] among other endemic problems.

As stated by the current United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, José Francisco Cali Tzay, ''every day I am receiving more reports from every part of the world on how indigenous communities are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. , and I am deeply concerned to learn that it is not always treated for health problems''.[7]


Despite these adversities, indigenous peoples have acted quickly to protect themselves from the spread of the virus, using their own defense mechanisms and traditional knowledge. The same that they have learned for generations in response to the vulnerability they suffer in terms of the violation of their human rights and viral infections. This is how they have shown that they are strong and resilient communities.

However, such qualities have not exempted them from suffering the most serious consequences of the pandemic. In the native Amazonian peoples of Peru, the Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Jungle (AIDESEP), indicated at the end of July that more than 10,000 infected people have been detected and more than 400 deaths. Julio Cusuruchi, president of the Native Federation of the Madre de Dios River and Tributaries (FENAMAD) comments on this:

The figure of 10,000 infected among the Amazonian peoples is what the organizations manage with the information we have, but the real figure must be much higher. Not all communities are tested and in those that are tested, few are performed. In one community, 24 tests were carried out and 19 were infected. In another community, out of 30 tests, 15 were positive. Communities are becoming infected rapidly and we have no support from the authorities. We do not have medical assistance or medicine, we are curing ourselves with plants, that is helping us a lot, otherwise we would have many more deaths.[8]

The Navajo Nation, the largest native population in the United States and comprising the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, surpassed New York with more than 3,100 confirmed cases of coronavirus and a death of 1,000 people in mid-May . With 300,000 registered Navajos, it becomes the indigenous people with the highest contagion rate per capita in the American continent.[9]

Ads asking the Navajo community to take shelter and warning of a curfew at Lake Casamero, New Mexico. Source: Insider.

Native communities in Southeast Asia also face multiple risks in addition to COVID-19. In Myanmar, the indigenous population endures quarantine as a civil war continues to unfold as the Tatmadaw (Burmese Army) increases its offensives against the Arakan Army.[10] In the Philippines, the Mangyan ( group of eight tribes on the island of Mindoro) has been ignored in the delivery of food and supplies by the government. Despite the fact that the first positive case of an infected indigenous child was reported in May.[11] And in April, in the mountains of northern Thailand, indigenous communities battled against forest fires, without have significant help from government authorities.[12]

The biggest concern for indigenous leaders in southern Africa is the decision of most governments to close markets. This has had a strong impact on their fragile economies. Since in poor urban areas, people experience food insecurity. And in rural areas, despite the fact that the population has its own resources, restrictions on trade and movement put pressure on them. In addition, in the Sahel region (home to multiple peoples identified as indigenous) the prevention of the pandemic is difficult to prioritize given its problems of insecurity and armed conflicts.[13]

Information campaign on care in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic in Chad. Source: UNESCO.

Unfortunately, the situations mentioned only constitute a small part of the enormous table of cases in which the complicated situation for native peoples within the pandemic can be illustrated. In addition to the other problems that have plagued them before COVID-19. Although they are no less important, the objective of this article goes beyond addressing the consequences of the current situation in their territories. On the contrary, returning to the main theme of the International Day of Indigenous Peoples, some of the ways in which indigenous communities, in various latitudes of the globe, have organized to protect themselves, as a group and as individuals, from the pandemic will be presented.

This becomes more relevant when knowing that "indigenous peoples with a reduced population, peoples isolated or in initial contact, some of them cross-border, run a serious risk of seeing their very existence affected."[14] It is enough to remember that smallpox, measles and other diseases disappeared from 80% of the native populations in America after their contact with the people of Europe. Or that the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic was 3 to 6 times more deadly among native communities than among non-indigenous populations in the Americas and the Pacific. [15]

Despite the attacks of colonization, the formation of independent States, modernity and globalization, the original peoples in general have preserved their identity and traditions. This has demonstrated its capacity for innovation, adaptation and resilience. A pragmatic definition of the latter concept, according to sociologist Stefan Vanistendael, is “the ability of a person or a group to overcome great difficulties and grow through or in the presence of them in a positive way''.[[16]] (#_ftn16)

For indigenous groups, a fundamental element of their resilience is the set of ancestral knowledge and practices, generated and transmitted through history. Which has served them for the management, ordering and sustainable use of resources [17] or, to face epidemiological threats.

Traditional medicine was included by the Latin Parliament as an alternative to combat COVID-19. Source: Point U.


The Kankuama community of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia, has adopted the following measures to prevent and treat the virus. His first action is to control the entry and exit of each person; Secondly, "a spiritual harmonization and payments are made to the sacred sites in all the indigenous communities throughout the country, where permission is requested from Mother Earth to handle the virus and for healing to come" ; the third step is the use of plants when an imbalance is generated in the body and in the fourth, interculturality is entered, by combining the use of traditional medicine with specific medications for each stage of the disease. In the words of Ydyd Ramos, a Kankuama indigenous person, who receives all the recommendations, advice, and knowledge from the majorities (doctors and traditional doctors) of the country, to disseminate it in the native communities throughout the territory. When people do not have the virus or are asymptomatic, in addition to the general recommendations, they can drink tea or infusions from a plant known as spring. Or in the event of severe symptoms of the virus, such as respiratory distress or sore throat, start a treatment in which "you have to gargle with baking soda with lemon or lemon with garlic, ground in water, and sprays with cord or matico, yerbamala, chamomile, yerbaluisa, eucalyptus, and medications such as aspirin and naproxen''.[18]

Indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Source: Sustainable Week.

''First Nations'' in Canada, such as the Niisaachewan or Mohawk Nation, fared better in the first wave of the pandemic than the rest of the non-Indigenous population in this country. The province of British Columbia is a case in point. In the first 6 months of 2020, only 90 cases of COVID-19 were reported among people from the original communities. These low numbers were attributed to the extraordinary health measures adopted by these communities. According to Dr. Nel Weiman, acting deputy chief medical officer for the First Nations Health Authority, experience in past epidemics, in which entire villages have nearly disappeared, made people especially wary of the virus and take it seriously. So these communities have been creative in coming up with ways to stay connected virtually, setting up trailers to enforce self-isolation, blocking roads to control access to their territories, and even now that the rest of the province has reopened, they are fighting to stay closed. In addition, they encouraged people to stay at home by delivering meals and prescriptions for the elderly population. They also resort to their traditional medicine, such as cedar leaf teas, which help prevent COVID-19 infections.[19]

The current situation has also been difficult for the native communities of Nepal. Those who have had to respect rules that did not apply to their lifestyle before. For example, they do not usually wash their hands all the time because their culture is closer to Mother Earth and because most of the time they do not have a running water supply. Furthermore, in the words of Pratima Gurung, an activist for the rights of indigenous peoples and women with disabilities in Nepal and Asia, the main problem is access to communication. Since the bulk of the news about COVID-19 is spread mainly in Nepali and English, in a country where 123 different languages are spoken. This makes it difficult for information to reach the rest of the population. However, the Red de Radios Comunitarias Indígenas (ICRN) produced health-related messages in several of the languages of the indigenous peoples and broadcast them on 24 indigenous community radio stations. Facilitating communication to communities living in remote areas.[20]

As for Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, indigenous communities in Kananga, Tshikapa and the Kasai region have increased their consumption of ''Vernonia amigdalina'' (bitter vernonia), a traditional plant used to cure various diseases and alleviate symptoms of COVID-19. Similar situation in Ethiopia, where its native peoples are using roots and tree bark to deal with it. In Morocco, the disinfection and purification plants used by the Berber community now have a more important role in preventing the spread of the pandemic[21] (OHCHR 2020).

Vernonia amygdalina. Source: Comboni Missionaries.

Another of the consequences of the pandemic and the quarantine is that they have affected the preservation and development of the Sami culture (the only indigenous group recognized in the European Union. Located in Lapland, a cross-border region that spans northern Norway, Sweden , Finland and the Kola Peninsula, northwestern Russia). Many Sami people and organizations make a living preparing or performing at their festivals, markets, conferences and/or seminars. Which represent important meeting points for their community. But as a consequence of the quarantine, these activities could not be carried out. Thus affecting the income of the Sami artists, like their artisans and artisans, who wait for these events to sell their products. However, one positive measure taken through the International Sami Film Institute was to invite filmmakers from this community to apply for a minimum grant to make a short film on the COVID-19 situation. Resulting in 15 shorts that show the experiences of the confinement and the situation of the pandemic from a Sami perspective. The series is called Oru lea bouret go jodi (Home Sweet Home).[22]

Source: International Sámi Film Institute.

Finally, the original peoples of Mexico have also demonstrated their resilience in the face of the pandemic. The Zapotec communities of Villa Talea de Castro, Guelatao de Juárez and Villa Díaz Ordaz Tlacolula in Oaxaca, despite not having medical infrastructure or a government plan to stop the pandemic in indigenous territories, have successfully contained it. The key to its achievement lies in the effectiveness of its community mechanisms. Among which stand out the checkpoints or sanitary filters at the entrances of their communities and the self-supply of food (through the cultivation of vegetables in their homes) to avoid going to other locations. They also implemented curfews, the reduction of opening and closing hours of shops, the pause of activities in tourist places, the mandatory use of face masks and the distribution of edible plants and seeds to the community for the self-consumption of vegetables.[\ 23]


The global spread of COVID-19 has revealed various problems that have been embedded in society for a long time. But in the particular case of the original communities, the pandemic aggravated their ways of life, to the point of endangering their existence and their culture. Despite the additional disadvantages they have had to deal with since colonization, and the inevitable casualties from the virus, they remain a clear example of the ability to adapt and overcome daily and new challenges. However, it is pertinent to highlight the specific ways of each indigenous people in which they have responded to the current situation. Since, as has been seen, each one has used their own knowledge and ancestral practices to safeguard their culture. This without leaving aside the use of interculturality, using the sanitary measures and medicines of Western medicine.

Consequently, the original peoples continue to maintain their lifestyles, identities, culture and ideology in force. And they have done it in an exceptional way, becoming a benchmark for functionality and effectiveness in the face of epidemiological crises. Well, among them, the collectivity is prioritized as an ordering principle of their worldview. This factor has lost weight in the discourse and in the forms of social organization of centralized populations like ours. Where a climate of hyperindividualization prevails that leads to selfishness, which fractures the social fabric. That is evidenced in the precarious responsibility in the follow-up of the sanitary measures and recommendations.

The importance of claiming and making visible the resilience of indigenous communities is not limited to a category of victimization because, as already mentioned, their actions in the face of the pandemic were to a considerable extent independent of the State's response. Rather, the transcendence of their existence is observed in their relationship with the environment, with which they have a form of two-way interaction that ensures the survival of their people and the sustainability of natural resources. It must be considered that the portion of the territory in which native peoples live coincides with 80% of the planet's biodiversity.[24] This becomes an important justification if we recognize that the protection of the environment it is the main way to prevent future pandemics.


    [1] United Nations, ‘‘International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples 2020’’,, consultado el 20 de agosto de 2020.

    [2], ‘‘El mapa mundial del coronavirus: más de 25,5 millones de casos y más de 851.000 muertos en todo el mundo’’, 1 de septiembre de 2020,, consultado el 1 de septiembre de 2020.

    [3] Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo (PNUD), ‘‘Coronavirus vs. Desigualdad’’,, consultado el 23 de agosto de 2020.

    [4] United Nations, Op. Cit.

    [5] Flores, Rogelio y Vera, Rodrigo, ‘‘Cifras letales en medio año de pandemia’’, Proceso, no.2287 (2020), pp. 13-14.

    [6] Bellinghausen, Hermann, ‘‘Indígenas desplazados, entre agresiones de grupos paramilitares y el COVID-19’’, La Jornada, 7 de mayo de 2020,, consultado el 24 de agosto de 2020.

    [7] Office of the United Nations High Comissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), ‘‘COVID 19 is devastating indigenous communities worldwide, and it’s not only about health – UN expert warns’’, 18 de mayo de 2020,, consultado el 24 de agosto de 2020.

    [8] Noriega, Carlos, ‘‘La pandemia de coronavirus arrasa con la amazonia peruana’’, Página 12, 26 de julio de 2020,, consultado el 24 de agosto de 2020.

    [9] Díaz, José, ‘‘Nación Navajo sería el pueblo indígena más impactado por el COVID-19’’, Servindi, 11 de mayo de 2020,, consultado el 25 de agosto de 2020.

    [10] EFE, ‘’La COVID-19 no logra detener la incesante guerra civil de Birmania’’, 3 de abril de 2020,, consultado el 25 de agosto de 2020.

    [11] Bociaga, Robert, ‘‘For the Philippine’s Mangyans, COVID-19 extends a long history of discrimination’’, Mongabay, 7de agosto de 2020,, consultado el 25 de agosto de 2020.

    [12] ASEAN Today, ‘‘Southeast Asia’s indigenous calls for support in their fight against COVID-19’’, 22 de abril de 2020,, consultado el 25 de agosto de 2020.

    [13] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), ‘‘African voices – UNESCO’s indigenous partners in Africa’’, 8 de agosto de 2020,, consultado el 25 de agosto de 2020.

    [14] Rodríguez, Ana, ‘‘Comunidades indígenas en América Latina: resiliencia o cómo crecer en la adversidad’’, Atalayar, 30 de junio de 2020,, consultado el 25 de agosto de 2020.

    [15] Kaplan, Hillard,, Voluntary collective isolation as a best response to COVID-19 for indigenous populations? A case study and protocol from the Bolivian Amazon, 2020, p-17.

    [16] Universitat de Barcelona, ‘‘Stefan Vanistendel: La resiliencia no se construye a cualquier precio, siempre tiene una dimensión ética’’, 9 de mayo de 2011, , consultado el 26 de agosto de 2020.

    [17] Fondo para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas de América Latina y el Caribe (FILAC), ‘‘Myrna Cunningham: Innovación, adaptación y resiliencia fundamentales para lograr el Desarrollo Sostenible’’, 22 de agosto de 2020,, consultado el 26 de agosto de 2020.

    [18] FILAC, ‘‘La medicina tradicional con la que pueblos indígenas de Colombia hacen frente al COVID-19’’, 3 de junio de 2020,, consultado el 27 de agosto de 2020.

    [19] Banning, Jolene, ‘‘Why indigenous communities seeing few cases of COVID-19’’, CMAJ News, 10 de agosto de 2020,, consultado el 27 de agosto de 2020.

    [20] Sunuwar, Dev, ‘‘United Nations praises community media in Nepal for COVID-19 response’’, Cultural Survival, 17 de agosto de 2020,, consultado el 27 de agosto de 2020.

    [21] OHCHR, COVID-19 and indigenous people’s rights, OHCHR, 2020, pp. 2-3.

    [22] The Arctic Council, ‘‘The impact of COVID-19 on Saami communities’’, 16 de julio de 2020,, consultado el 28 de agosto de 2020.

    [23] Miranda, Fernando, ‘‘En estos municipios zapotecas la organización comunitaria mantiene a raya la pandemia’’, El Universal, 30 de julio de 2020,, consultado el 30 de agosto de 2020.

    [24] Suarez, Gerardo, ‘‘El 80% de la biodiversidad del planeta está resguardada por pueblos indígenas’’, CCMSS, 29 de mayo de 2017,, consultado el 30 de agosto de 2020.

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Cacho, Gustavo. “COVID-19 y la resiliencia de los pueblos indígenas.” CEMERI, 22 sept. 2022,