UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
[Baguio, Philippines, 01/04/2020] As several friends, indigenous individuals and love ones get infected with COVID-19 and some have passed away I am terribly concerned. Concerned because some of these deaths could have been avoided if we have more humane and caring politicians, societies and governance systems. Concerned, because if we not learn lessons from this tragedy, we will not see an end to this. COVID-19 has shown us that atomized societies which put individualism and profit making as the pinnacle of modern civilization will further lead us to more disasters and crises. If people love and have more compassion, empathy and solidarity for and with other human beings and nature, our world will not be in this state.
The medical doctors who died due to COVID-19 are usually the ones who took the Hippocratic Oath to heart and responded to those infected even knowing what the risks are. Patients who do not honestly disclose their travel histories have done a great disservice to these doctors.
Military and paramilitary men who still engage in extrajudicial killings during these times of crisis are despicable, to say the least. Some of them are using this situation to further engage in red-tagging and labeling human rights defenders and indigenous peoples as terrorists to justify criminalization and their murderous acts. Even worst is that they enjoy impunity as they are not brought to justice. If these men have more compassion and respect for human rights the chances for building peaceful societies will increase.
If personal protection equipment (PPEs) are provided to health personnel and tests for COVID-19 are done even before symptoms manifest, the exponential increase of people infected will be controlled. But no, most capitalists first think of how to earn profit during these times and thus accessibility is limited. Politicians think of how to have propaganda mileage which will increase their chances of winning the next elections so they have to label the kits and relief packages with their names. This is not to say all politicians are like this. I acknowledge that there are politicians who care for the common good and we thank them.
Even the development of vaccines and medicines becomes a competition on which corporation or country will own the intellectual property rights. During this time of COVID-19, solidarity should be the primordial value over anything else. Whatever happens to one person will have a reverberating impact on the rest of the world. So it is in our own enlightened self interest to help lessen the spread of the virus as it can get to any of us and our families. Even for corporations it is in their interest to do what they can as they will lose their workers and consumers. What use will their profits and wealth be amidst all these? Amazon sacking its employees who organized and joined the strike because of non-provision of PPEs is emblematic of the lack of compassion and solidarity of these corporations.
Indigenous peoples are among those who are highly vulnerable to COVID-19 because of many factors. Several of them are still internally displaced and put in cramped refugee centres. Some are found in the walled borders Trump has built between Mexico and the US. There is a lack of basic amenities, such as water, health care services and personnel in their territories which are remote and inaccessible. There 100 Navajo people who have died due to COVID-19 in New Mexico and Arizona simply because they lack potable water resources.
When they are in urbanised areas some of them are usually in the informal economy and are domestic workers which makes them vulnerable to economic dislocation and infection. Several of them are also found in urban poor areas which are congested. Those indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation, many of which are in the Amazon, who have lesser immunity to diseases can easily disappear if an infected person comes into their communities. Bolsonaro in Brazil, has used this situation to justify entry of right-wing evangelical churches into these communities.
In the Cordillera region in the Philippines, those engaged in cash crop production cannot transport their produce to the markets because of lockdowns. These crops now lay by the wayside or given for free. The investments they put into these which usually come from debts are lost. In Indonesia those indigenous peoples raising palm oil face similar situations . After harvest, the palm nuts have to go to the market within 3 days. This is not happening as lockdowns are in place. So these palm oil planters will go bankrupt.
Another horrendous situation is the militarization of government responses. Instead of dealing with COVID-19 as a public health issue, many governments use the military approach. This led to several indigenous persons being arrested or killed extrajudicially. We are witnessing this phenomenon in Colombia and other countries. Such abuse of emergency powers to further violate basic human rights is unacceptable and should be condemned and opposed.
Discrimination further exacerbates the situation as relief packages and health care do not reach many indigenous communities. The Mangyan in Mindoro in the Philippines sent reports that they get much less relief goods than the dominant populations. They are consistently discriminated against by some local governments and the settlers in their territories.
On the positive side many indigenous peoples are using extensively their traditional systems in dealing with crisis and disasters . Among us Kankana-ey Igorot, we declare ubaya, which is a traditional way of locking down communities when there is an epidemic or when rituals are being done. There are signposts in the entrances and exits to the village , which are usually tied stick leaves, to tell people not to enter or exit. Everybody follows this and those violating the ubaya will be punished. If the ubaya takes longer and people run out of food, the ones with more rice in their granaries are obliged to share with those who do not have. These practices of solidarity and community mobilization are common amongst indigenous peoples in other countries. The Tayrona, Arhuaco and Kogi in Santa Marta de Nevadas, also do this. Such lockdowns in other indigenous communities also do not allow corporations like oil, gas and mining corporations from coming in.
I appeal to governments, corporations and actors such churches, human rights institutions to ensure that human rights is used as the framework in analysing and responding to the COVID-19 crisis as this affects indigenous peoples and all. The situation should not be used by states to further militarize and violate human rights, such as doing arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings. The basic right to life should be protected. Equality and non- discrimination should be the guiding principles used when designing and implementing COVID-19 responses. Indigenous peoples should be allowed to participate in designing, implementing and evaluating these responses. Indigenous governance systems and cultures as well as indigenous knowledge and traditional healing systems which can address the COVID-19 crisis should be supported and reinforced. Strengthening indigenous communities and allowing them to be self- governing can help address this serious challenge in our midst. May the world prevail over this crisis and may we ensure that compassion, empathy, solidarity and respect for human rights and nature be our guideposts in creating a transformed world.
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