Kartic Godavarthy

Cogito, Ergo Sum

How COVID-19 Affects Tribes and Indigenous Peoples

The pandemic has multiple consequences and dimensions to how it affects the Indigenous Peoples of the World.

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc across the human species, in the context of the economy, psychological mindset, social relationships, and most importantly physical health. If you look at each of these aspects from a holistic view, as is done by anthropologists, there are plenty of factors that are especially relevant to the tribes of India and the indigenous peoples of the world. Indigenous people are those who are the original inhabitants of the land, and in India, are often referred to as the Adivasis, “the first inhabitants”. Many tribes and indigenous people have made a choice to be voluntarily isolated from the rest of mainstream society, to maintain their way of life and to protect their rich land that is also close to their personal identities. 

A contagious disease like COVID-19 is especially dangerous because indigenous peoples have reduced immunity due to this voluntary isolation from the rest of society, and other factors such as nutrition and poor access to healthcare resources. The voluntary isolation means that these individuals have not been exposed to a majority of antigens, and thus have not had an immune response necessary to build an immunity. Additionally, the immune system is weakened fighting other diseases common to living in natural resource rich lands, such as malaria, parasites, etc. Nearly all indigenous people of the world have a painful history of being devastated by foreign diseases introduced by other groups, such as when influenza and measles were introduced to the Amazonian Tribes. In India, digestive and respiratory infections, addictions, and sexually transmitted diseases are dangerously making their way and killing hundreds of Tribal individuals every year. 

So far, COVID-19 was reported in 10 of 74 surviving individuals of the Great Andamanese Tribe, an especially vulnerable and declining tribal population, and these members eventually recovered from the disease after isolation measures were followed, and healthcare support was provided [1]. The virus has also recently infected one member of the Bonda Tribe and five from the remote Didayi Tribe, both being Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups and Scheduled Tribes of Odisha[2]. The latest statistic from the USA states that the virus has taken the lives of 10% (i.e. 81 members) of the population of the indigenous tribe Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians [3]. Native Americans are experiencing a disproportionately high infection and death rate as compared to other communities. 

According to the UN, the largest challenge to indigenous people in the context of public health emergencies such as this pandemic, is social and economic marginalization, and a disproportionate higher risk as compared to other populations. Let us now look at the former- many tribal individuals were encouraged to intermingle, or leave their land and seek a place in larger markets in shared ecosystems. Yet, they often do not have equal opportunities, nor the support to be financially secure in these uncertain times. The migration to cities, and the reverse migration due to this pandemic means the virus is possibly introduced into their tribe. The unfortunate experiences of social discrimination against tribals, difficulties in communication, differences in cultural systems, and challenges in finding a common language, can mean that individuals from tribes far away from the mainland are often the last to receive care or the latest news on managing disease. While there are public health workers who are dedicated to providing care, most of these workers and infrastructure are heavily burdened and underfunded in these difficult times. 

Economic livelihoods have been affected, and it is not just what is happening to the people living within these community, but also what is happening outside that has a direct impact. For instance, many indigenous people of South America are now threatened by rural and urban individuals who have entered into their protected lands, to mine for gold to earn an income during the pandemic. Leaders of the Yanomami Tribe of Brazil report that over 20,000 gold miners have invaded their territory and carried the virus deep into the Amazon [4]. In the Maasai Tribes of Kenya and Tanzania, there has been an increase in child marriage of young girls, as dowry has become a source of income during the lockdown [5]. There is unfortunately also an increase in sexual violence and abuse over this time period. 

In Anthropology, a multidimensional and multidisciplinary social science, we look at ways in which socio-cultural factors affect life, and in this case, public health. We need to think about how to introduce new habits and sustain the behaviors that are in support of COVID-19 prevention measures, personal hygiene, distancing, and monitoring health symptoms of oneself and others. It is equally important to communicate confidence about mainstream medical and healthcare facilities, and provide psychological support to the anxiety and fear that is a result of the pandemic and changing world. 

Prevention is the most important step to protecting Indigenous people, especially with a disease that does not have a definitive or clear cut cure. This can only be done by sharing power with the indigenous people, engaging in two-way communication where we listen as much as we speak, revering the traditions and authority systems of tribes, and through collaboration. And importantly, we need to recognize ethno-medical practices (traditional medicine) of tribes, and their wisdom. For all we know, there is a cure, strategy, protocol or immune booster already available and known by the indigenous people. But till we know more, it is the duty of every Indian to protect the tribes of India and the world. 

This essay is a brief multidimensional overview having current data at the time of publishing the original article in October 2020. It will be helpful to not only students who have chosen Anthropology as their optional subject, but for anyone studying General Studies and preparing for General Essay. 


[1] Singh, S S. (11 September 2020). All Members of the Great Andamanese Tribe Recover from COVID-19. The Hindu. Retrieved from: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/all-members-of-great-andamanese-tribe-recover-from-covid-19/article32576802.ece#

[2] Mohanty, A. (23 September 2020). Covid-19 reaches remote tribes of Odisha: Why is it a matter of concern?. The Indian Express. Retrieved from: https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-the-remote-tribes-of-odisha-covid-19-has-reached-6605476/ 

[3] Walker, M. (8 October 2020). ‘A ‘A Devastating Blow’: Virus Kills 81 Members of Native American Tribe. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/08/us/choctaw-indians-coronavirus.html 

[4] Elmoudjaweb (28 September 2020). Coronavirus Spreads Deep Into the Amazon, Imperiling an Ancient Tribe- Jaweb. Elmoudjaweb. Retrieved from: https://elmoudjaweb.com/coronavirus-spreads-deep-into-the-amazon-imperiling-an-ancient-tribe-jaweb/ 

[5] Oppenheim, M. (30 September 2020). Coronavirus: Girls in Masai tribes suffering grave abuse ‘as teen pregnancies and FGM cases sharply rise’. Independent. Retrieved from: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/coronavirus-masai-tribes-girls-teenage-pregnancies-fgm-b691678.html

Here’s a video of my lecture in a seminar conducted on “Covid-19 and Indigenous People”, organised by Department of Anthropology, Sikkim Univeristy. I spoke on the Role of Communications in Improving Resilience.

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i think, therefore i am.

Cogito, ergo sum is a Latin philosophical proposition by René Descartes usually translated into English as “I think, therefore I am”, probably the one thing that defines our specie.

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