Indigenous realities in a COVID-19 world: Africa

The spread of COVID-19 in Africa, so far, has reportedly been lower and caused fewer fatalities than on other continentsbut the World Health Organisation (WHO) fears a rapid acceleration of the spread of the pandemic in the coming months.i This would have devastating outcome due to the regions fragile health-care systems and particularly devastating consequences for the marginalised and vulnerable Indigenous communitieon the continent. 

”Now we hear that Corona virus is in town; that we cannot go there anymore. We fear to go to town. And if the disease cannot be treated traditionally, it will be a threat to our life, Oloshuro Saruni, a member of the Akie community in Tanzania, said. 

Generally, many aspects contribute to the vulnerability and particular risk that Indigenous Peoples face in the COVID-19 pandemic ranging from lack of access to information, lack of health infrastructure and critical barriers in the COVID-19 response to traditional food production. Insights from Indigenous Peoples in Latin America and Asiawhere the spread of the virus has reportedly progressed further, show the same such experiences and hardships. Looking ahead, Indigenous Peoples in Africa are rightfully concerned.  

Indigenous Peoples increasingly at risk 

IWGIA’s partners and networks throughout the continent continuously report urgent and critical issues regarding their current situation and the virus, such as restrictions on earning their livelihood and lack of accessibility to healthcare as well as to adequate Covid-19 information. The issue of geographical inaccessibility in which most indigenous people in Africa find themselves, pose significant challenges for people who are already very vulnerable  

“COVID-19 is making Indigenous communities, such as the Laikipia Maasai and Samburu [in Kenya], more vulnerable, [as well as] those with disabilities, young children and the elderly, as they live in geographically isolated landscapes that make them unable to access essential services,” Malih Ole Kaunga, Director at IMPACT (Indigenous Movement for Peace Advancement and Conflict Transformation) in Kenya, said.  

The Working Group on the Rights of Indigenous Populations/Communities in Africa, a Special Mechanism of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, has issued strong statements and expressed their concerns regarding the vulnerability of Indigenous Peoples in Africa due to their precarious living conditions. The Working Group notes that Indigenous populations have not been able to access health services and that national health policies have been inappropriate with respect to the Indigenous way of life. It further states that COVID-19 has a disproportionate impact on Indigenous Peoples and urges states to address their specific needs for a strategic response to this pandemic. 

Adverse effects of protection measures: Socioeconomic impactslivelihood & food insecurity    

Across the continent, countless challenges have intensified and new ones are emerging in the face of the pandemic for Indigenous Peoples in Africa (mainly encompassing pastoralists and hunter-gatherers). From east to west, north to south, it is a constant struggle to have an equal chance to prevent, respond to and overcome the crisis.   

This is for instance the case for the Batwa people of Uganda, where The United Organisation for Batwa Development in Uganda (UOBDU) reports on how the lock down is crippling their livelihood, which is substantially dependent on the daily income provided by cheap labour such as selling wares on roadsides, washing, cleaning, and carrying garbage from homes and hotels.ii

Further, the socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19 and its prevention measures, such as the closing of livestock and open markets, are extremely threatening to pastoralists across Africawho are losing access to essential goods as well the possibility to trade their livestock, which is the backbone of their economy  

”COVID-19 crisis is not only a public health crisis for pastoralist communities but also a socio-economic crisis that is stretching the livelihoods security of these communities to the limit, with woman and children been disproportionately affected,” Maanda Ngoitiko, Executive Director at the Pastoral Womens Council (PWC), said. ”Efforts by stakeholders should be harmonised and integrate appropriate response mechanisms to curb the spread of the virus as well as livelihood support to ensure food security and prevention of violence against women and children.”

In addition, restrictions on mobility hamper their nomadic lifestyles and pastoral activities, such as transhumance – the practice of moving livestock from one grazing ground to another, thus undermining their ability to feed their animals and provide for themselves. Prices in the livestock sector in West Africa have already reportedly dropped by more than 50%, forcing pastoralists to massively reduce their livestock numbers.iii

Amid the global COVID-19 crisis, east Africa is also experiencing a catastrophic and persistent locust invasion, destroying millions of acres of pastures and food crops.iv,v The daunting issue of food insecurity across the continent is well known and has been a focus of development interventions for decades; now with markets closed and crucial aid not reaching these vulnerable communities, Indigenous Peoples are at a higher risk than ever before. 

Other Indigenous Peoples in Africa, such as the highly marginalised Akie hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, are also facing extremely difficult situations due to implemented protection measures 

”Economically we are affected because we as hunters and gatherers cannot sell the honey freely as we used to do. Honey being the sole mode of production which we depend on by selling, and then buying other things for our families” Oloshuro Saruni said. ”If things become worse we will not be able to access food and other needs which are found in town and it will be difficult for us to survive”. 

Lack of access to health care and information 

As governments and duty bearers take action to prevent and control the COVID-19 pandemic, the impacts of these prevention measures are becoming clearer. Lacking an intercultural understanding, these measures, which strive to mitigate the spread of the virus, are often taking a disproportional toll on Indigenous communities.   

Lack of access to health care services and facilities is currently a major challenge for Indigenous people in Libya, due to the prevalent discrimination against ethnic minority groups and years of armed conflict. When in need for medical assistance, many from these already marginalised groups are forced to travel far from their communities and territories, visiting smaller, often underequipped hospitals to avoid areas controlled by rival groups, even though they have larger, fully equipped ones nearby. And, upon arrival, they may lack identity documents required to get access to Libyan public healthcarethus not being guaranteed they will receive the care they

Accessibility to relevant and critical information is a reoccurring issue for Indigenous Peoples worldwide, including in Africa.  

Job Morris, aIndigenous activist of Khoi-San origin from Botswana, reports on the lack of information dissemination for communities and is lobbying for the establishment of local radio stationswhich are currently not allowed in the countryto spread important news and information on the virus. 

I realized that there is a need to be prepared in the future and it is very important that there is information that is relevant to the community which is translated in local languages,” Morris said  

He further noted that the Botswanan government response and subsequent relief measures are highly problematic for Indigenous communities.  

To date there has been little relief on offer from the government, and the measures implemented by them are largely inappropriate, ineffective or unattainable for San people.”   

The situation is similar in Tanzania where Indigenous people like the Maasai pastoralists suffer from high illiteracy levels and many do not speak the national language KiswahiliThis language barrier, coupled with the limited access to modern means of communication, internet and social media means that it is extremely difficult for Maasai pastoralists to access or understand any information being distributed:  

“What we need now in the community is an intensive awareness creation which should deliberately be carried out by the use of posters carrying different messages which inform the community of the means of preventing the spread of the disease, [as well as the use of] local radio stations, and more dissemination of facilities, including hand washing facilities, sanitizers, soaps and simple masks, Loserian Maoi, a Maasai elder from northern Tanzania, said. 

IWGIA urges states to make every effort to ensure that Indigenous Peoples have access to information on measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including the translation of critical materials into local Indigenous languages and the use of accessible means of communication, as well as having safe access to health services and the ability to easily access relief funds. 


This article has been written with contributions from Emanuel Saringe (The PINGOS Forum) and Lesle Jansen (Natural Justice) 


Notes and References 

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Tags: Covid-19



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

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