As the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the world it is becoming evident that Indigenous peoples and minorities are facing ever more violations of their rights to health, to food, to work, of their right to land and territories, of their right to be treated equally and without discrimination, and even of their right to life. Higher rates of ill-health among Indigenous peoples and minorities, along with barriers to accessing healthcare and public services whether due to location, language, or socio-economic circumstances, are all compounding the vulnerability of Indigenous peoples and minorities during this health crisis. As well as suffering greater risks to their health, the UN special rapporteur on minority issues has warned that the pandemic has exacerbated the xenophobia, hate and exclusion experienced by minorities as they are blamed for the spread of the virus. The lockdown being enforced on more and more of the world’s population gives States unprecedented powers as well as providing favourable conditions for non-state actors to perpetrate human rights abuses. Whilst the situation is changing daily, in this article I examine the ways in which the pandemic is already adversely impacting Indigenous peoples and minorities drawing attention to some of the reasons that have resulted in them facing this crisis from such an iniquitous position.
Factors like income, identity, and immigration status are all likely to impact who gets sick as viral outbreaks are known to disproportionately affect the poor (Association of American Medical Colleges). Inequity places many minorities and Indigenous peoples at even greater risk from the coronavirus than the general population. In Australia government advice was that the elderly population – those over 70 – should self-isolate but with the caveat that for Indigenous peoples it should be those over 50, exposing the disparity in the health standards of the two populations. A lack of access to water and sanitation, and poor living conditions have been highlighted as putting Travellers in Ireland and Roma in Europe at greater risk (EU Observer). Advice to wash hands regularly is of no help to those with no access to water.
Minorities also face a greater risk of contracting the virus through their disproportionate representation in many prison populations. The risk of exposure to the virus from being in a confined space is a similar concern for those in immigration detention centres, for displaced peoples, for migrant workers in labour camps, Rohingya in camps in Bangladesh, or the Uighurs in China.
Should they contract the virus, minorities and Indigenous peoples face greater barriers to accessing healthcare. In a report on how the virus disproportionately affects Indigenous peoples, the international NGO Cultural Survival has highlighted the greater risk many face being already marginalised and with poor access to health and social care. Minority Rights Group has stressed that Covid-19 emergency relief must reach everyone, including minorities and indigenous peoples who are often excluded from humanitarian interventions. Human Rights Watch has called for States to ensure there are no barriers to minorities accessing the healthcare and treatment they need for Covid-19. Similarly the UN has called on States to ensure that marginalised groups such as minorities and Indigenous peoples are not denied access to healthcare during the pandemic. Such calls appear to be falling on deaf ears: for example, data analysis in the United States shows doctors are less likely to refer African Americans with symptoms for tests and in Australia a person who identified as an Aboriginal was denied a test despite Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples being identified as an at-risk group.
The economic effects of the coronavirus have already been felt by millions with reports from the US and the UK suggesting that both now and in the future the economic impact is most likely to hit their marginalised minority populations hardest. And that is the expectation in countries able to spend billions in subsidising their citizens’ incomes.
The right to land, territories and resources
Social conditions, remote locations, and the lack of access to hospitals, doctors and medicine are not the only vulnerabilities of Indigenous peoples. Indigenous leaders in Ecuador and Brazil have expressed concern that those who continue working, legally and illegally, on hydroelectric, mining and logging projects, tourists, health workers, drug traffickers, and even missionaries risk bringing the virus to vulnerable groups in remote areas and many Indigenous peoples have barricaded their land to try to prevent encroachment by outsiders. These concerns have also resulted in the Amazon Indigenous Organisation COICA issuing an emergency call for governments in the region to restrict access to Indigenous territories to avoid a grave health catastrophe.
Despite those such as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, calling for an end to discrimination, hate speech and the scapegoating of minorities, harassment, and both verbal and physical abuse of minorities continue. From school children of minorities in the UK who have experienced intimidation and name-calling in association with Covid-19, to Trump holding immigrants responsible for the spread of the virus and the authorities in Slovakia who blame Roma, minorities have become scapegoats as a result of the anxiety and uncertainty of others. Blaming others is also being used for political ends as nationalist politicians across Europe have insinuated that migrants are spreading the virus to justify turning migrants away and closing borders.
The possibility that the public health emergency may result in a discriminatory use of quarantine power against particular groups of people based on racialisation and national origin has caused Human Rights Watch to call for attention to human rights such as non-discrimination when considering any imposition of quarantine.
An unprecedented number of countries, states and cities have now declared a state of emergency in order to deal with the outbreak or prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Under a state of emergency governments are able to bring in temporary measures such as mass surveillance, new laws, and increased police and state powers, as long as these measures are proportional to the crisis they are confronting. States may also limit or even suspend human rights as many States are doing now in removing the rights to freedom of movement and freedom of assembly in order to prevent the spread of the disease. The UN has warned through a recent statement by a group of UN human rights experts that States must not overreach security measures by using the outbreak as a cover for repressive action or a basis on which to target particular groups or minorities. This remains a concern as more and more States impose a state of emergency, with six European states even electing to derogate from the European Convention on Human Rights.
The international NGO, The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) reports emergency measures have led not only to people being unable to move freely but also to an increase in military and police presence in the areas where Indigenous peoples live. In addition, a lack of access to communication, the inability of organisations and networks to mobilise, and concerns that any human rights violations could go unreported have left Indigenous people in fear for their lives. These fears are well-founded as reports from Colombia suggest the lockdown and emergency situation was used as a cover to kill land rights activists with three social leaders killed in March 2020.
The protection of minorities and Indigenous peoples is further impacted as the mechanisms available to them close down. The 2020 meeting of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has been postponed and meetings that assess human rights violations have been cancelled. The postponed visit to Argentina, where cases of torture against the Mapuche community have been recorded, by the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture is one such example.
The continued failure of States to ensure and protect the rights of minorities and Indigenous peoples exposes them to this pandemic from an unequal position in terms of both health and security. The UN Secretary-General António Guterrez has called for the response to the virus to be one of global solidarity for the benefit of the whole of humanity, not one where the most vulnerable pay the highest price. It must be a response that ensures minorities and Indigenous peoples do not face more human rights violations as well as the virus.
Pippa Cooper is a part-time student on the MA in Human Rights. She works as the Human Rights Defender Hub Co-ordinator at the Centre for Applied Human Rights, University of York
Association of American Medical Colleges (2020) ‘The new coronavirus affects us all. But some groups may suffer more.’ [online] https://www.aamc.org/news-insights/new-coronavirus-affects-us-all-some-groups-may-suffer-more accessed 31 March 2020
EU Observer (2020) ‘Inequality, anti-Roma racism, and the coronavirus’ [online] https://euobserver.com/coronavirus/147759 accessed 31 March 2020