Indigenous America and the Pandemic Era: Response

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


With around 40% of the population being Indigenous, Guatemala has the second largest percentage of Indigenous citizens of any country in Latin America. The first is Bolivia, with Indigenous people making up over 60% of the general population. Life for Indigenous people in Bolivia turned upside down in the fall, when the Indigenous president Evo Morales was ousted in a coup. The right wing  “interim” government has been openly hostile to Indigenous groups: 40 Indigenous men have been murdered, 300 detained, 800 injured, and women are constantly missing in clashes with the government. Speaking to members of Massachusetts Peace Action, Adriana Guzmán of the Anti-patriarchal Feminist Community explain how for the new government “it wasn’t enough to seize power, they needed to humiliate women.” 

This culture of repression, militarization and racism has found a stronghold within the pandemic era. Regions with outbreaks have been increasingly militarized, as the military has largely taken over virus control after the countries Minister of Health got sick (the fourth to do so). The government has banned the use of “unproven” traditional medicines, and even before this measure, access to local remedies has grown increasingly difficult since the coup, when much of the national enterprises were privatized and natural resources were rapidly exploited and looted by large corporations. Guzmán accurately describes the coup government as “a new colonization.” 

Protests in Bolivia over the delayed elections

After all of this corruption, all of the neglect of Indigenous communities ravaged by the virus, the country’s recent delay of national elections in the fall for the fourth time has pushed Indigenous communities over the edge. Indigenous activists, seeing no way out of the coup government, are taking over the country: “we are going to die because of their bullet or because of this virus.” Since the beginning of August, Indigenous groups have hit the streets to speak out, and most notably organized blockades nationwide. For 12 days, Indigenous protests have maintained over 70 roadblocks, encompassing over six million people. On August 14th, the government passed an election data protection law halting protests, or at least until free and fair elections are held. 

Such protests have spilled over into neighboring Chile, where long-standing tensions with the country’s southern Mapuche people have reached a boiling point. Like with the Garifuna in Honduras, the Mapuche have been subject to hostility and danger from both government policy and their local neighbors. Mapuche spiritual leader Machi Celestino Córdova, and 27 other Indigenous political prisoners, have been on hunger strike for 100 days now in prison to demand Chile meet the agreements it has made in regards to Indigenous people. In solidarity with their leaders, Indigenous Mapuche have been protesting in the streets to demand justice. In early August, protestors in the Araucanía region held demonstrations inside government buildings, but they were quickly met with violence as local residents attempted to force them out of the buildings. When the Mapuche resisted and remained, the locals went outside to loot, rob, destroy, and burn the cars of the Mapuche protestors, and even some government property. In response, the police addressed not the violence, but the peaceful protestors, and finally forced all Mapuche off government property, before diffusing the rest of the situation. In response, just one day ago, the Machi committed himself to a dry hunger strike, which would accelerate the deterioration of his health in order for the government to respond faster. 

Protestors in Chile hold a sign reading “Liberty to all the Mapuche political prisoners”

Being the spiritual leader of his people, the death of the Machi would be of extreme significance to the Mapuche people. Like with the death of other cultural leaders in the US and Brazil, the death of elders in Indigenous communities brings a loss of the group’s collective history and their collective vision for the future. However, compared to other countries, Chile is standing by in a different way as its Indigenous leaders die. It is unclear whether the demands of the Indigenous protestors will be met as they were in Bolivia, but time is running out for any meaningful decision to be made. Time is not only running out for Córdova, but for the Mapuche, and Indigenous people in general.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed Indigenous communities to the brink across the western hemisphere, and beyond. To make matters worse, settler governments are already finding ways to use the pandemic to carry out their own genocidal agendas. As unprecedented as the current times are, the inward approach to traditional ways of communities like the Garifuna and Native tribes in the US has shown promising results. So, it would be futile for the governments themselves to dictate what’s best for Indigenous communities; they already know that. Therefore, those in power must finally listen, especially in regards to longstanding and wide-ranging issues such as ending authoritarian regimes, putting Indigenous people, particularly women, into positions of power, actually addressing public health crises, and providing special relief for communities who are most disproportionately affected. Nothing can be done to fully rectify the harm done by genocidal settler governments, but these changes are first steps in ensuring Indigenous people can not just survive the pandemic, but begin to thrive in our “new normal.” 

Decaying democracy and political imprisonment are just two issues faced by Indigenous Americans during the pandemic era. Read more about land issues here, and high death rates here.