Indigenous America and the Pandemic Era: A Demographic Disaster

MAPA Newsletter August 2020

This article is the first in a three part series on the challenges faced by Indigenous peoples across the Americas during the COVID-19 era. Read the second part here, and the third part here


From Alaska to Chile, North and South America have been some of the hardest hit regions of the COVID-19 pandemic. In late May, the World Health Organization (WHO) Emergencies Director Mike Ryan called South America “a new epicenter for the disease.” Now, three months later, little has changed. Of the top ten countries with the most cases, six are in the Americas: Chile, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, and the United States, with the latter two topping the list. 

While presidents of Honduras, Brazil, and Bolivia have all contacted the virus and received the most advanced and privileged treatments, this is not the case for everyone affected. It has become clear that COVID-19 most disproportionately affects the most vulnerable communities, which collectively in the Americas has boiled down to one group: Indigenous Americans. Referred to across the Western Hemisphere as First Nations, Inuit, Métis, Aboriginal, Native, Tribal, Pueblos Indígenas, Amerindian, and more, Indigenous people are facing a demographic disaster across the Americas in the wake of the pandemic. 

For over 500 years, Indigenous Americans have been subjected to genocide, ehtnic cleansing, and epidemic after epidemic brought on by white settler-colonists. Today, this cruel pattern continues through COVID-19. Moreover, settler governments across the Americas have been using the pandemic to push indigenous populations further into the margins. Like in the United States following the murder of George Floyd, these crackdowns have lead to intense nationwide social upheaval in several countries. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the accompanying abuses of governmental commercial power,  pose an existential threat to Indigenous American communities.

Demographic Disaster 

The most obvious and direct effect of the pandemic on Indigneous communities in the Americas is the high death rate seen within Indigenous communities. This disproportionate rate of infection is extremely apparent in the United States and Brazil, the two countries leading the world in confirmed cases. In mid-May, the Navajo Nation surpassed New York and New Jersey to have the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the country. Decades of United States settler policy had set up reservation land to lack the infrastructure needed to fight the pandemic. Lacking access to traditional resources, reservation residents often have to drive miles just for food and water, which makes it almost impossible to maintain social distance and proper hand washing procedures. Homes are often multigenerational, which puts elders, the most valuable yet vulnerable members of society, at higher risk. Since the recent racial reckoning in the United States began, positive steps toward the protection of Native peoples have been taken, such as the Big Sur land repatriation, Washington NFL team’s logo change, and the Oklahoma Supreme Court Decision, there has yet to be a nationwide response of the forced removal of Native peoples that has lead the reservation system to be predisposed to public health crises. 

A similar situation has unfolded in Brazil, where long persecuted Amazonian communities are suffering from the country’s uncontrolled virus surge. The virus comes at a time when deforestation has reached an 11 year high under strong-man authoritarian president Jair Bolsonaro, who has rapidly accelerated development and natural resource extraction. While death statistics have become all too common, it’s important not to normalize them: “They’re not just numbers!” explains Xakriabá activist Célia Xakriabá, “when an indigenous person dies, a part of our collective history dies also.” 

Cheif Aritana in 1971

This statement is especially potent when considering the death of people like Chief Aritana Yawalapiti. Aritana was an influential leader who created the first collective reservation for over 16 Amazonian tribes to live in one protected park. The deaths of elders rob Indigneous people of wisdom of the past, leadership for the future, and in Aritana’s case, their own language, as he was one of the last Yawalapiti language speakers. The Indigenous people of Brazil need special protections to allow them to continue on their cultural practices, such as traditional medicine, and gain access to other medical help, but also to keep them safe from the spread of the virus from outside groups. However, longtime skeptic Bolsonaro is unlikely to ever provide this. 

In the wake of high transmission rates in Indigenous communities, the youth have been forced to step up and take on the roles of their lost elders. Celia Xakriabá represents a growing group of young female Indigenous activists who have gotten widespread media coverage for her conservation efforts. In the United States, young Native women have taken to Tiktok to preserve their elder’s knowledge and strengthen cultural awareness. The hashtag #NativeTiktok has itself become a resource for information and connection for Native youth during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has also brought threats to land sovereignty of Indigenous groups across the Americas, read more about that here, and how Indigenous peoples are responding here.