Indigenous peoples in peril
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, indigenous peoples (IPs) have been facing a host of vulnerabilities that have compromised their health and well-being. Aside from a lack of access to health facilities, barriers have included the lack of culturally sensitive health care, food insecurity, and outright violence that have imperiled their land and livelihood. Many of these issues are rooted in centuries of structural violence initiated by colonialism and perpetuated today by people in power.
Historically, too, epidemic disease outbreaks have presented an additional layer of vulnerability for IP communities, given, for some, their limited exposure and immunity to pathogens, and for many, their preexisting poor health conditions. Beyond the terrors of smallpox and cholera long ago, indigenous peoples today have been disproportionately affected by diseases like measles and tuberculosis.
This long history of survival, and an even longer history of living with pathogens, has led indigenous peoples to develop their own local responses to infectious diseases and times of crisis. As Karlston Lapniten has documented, various Cordillera communities have invoked “indigenous lockdowns” such as tengao and te-er, protective rituals like sagubay, and appeals to solidarity like baddangan. In Bukidnon, Easter Canoy of the Kitanglad Integrated NGOs tells me how Datu Makapukaw, Bae Inatlawan, and other elders have performed ceremonies like the panalawahig and pamugsa, calling for protection not just of their communities but also of humanity and the planet.
Despite these responses, the pandemic poses a serious threat to their communities.
In the first place, while many might imagine indigenous peoples to be living in isolation, such is not the case today. Many are forced to work and live in cities and towns both in the Philippines and abroad, and conversely, many lowlanders come to indigenous lands to engage in various activities, both legal and illegal. In terms of exposure, IPs are no less vulnerable than the general population.
The preexisting economic challenges faced by many indigenous communities also means that owing to poor nutrition, they are more susceptible to COVID-19. In addition, many indigenous groups face stigma and discrimination, compounded by bureaucratic requirements that have deprived them of health care, whether for COVID-19 or other medical conditions, and social security.
Beyond the medical threat posed by COVID-19, the economic effects of the pandemic also means that many indigenous individuals are at risk of further hunger and malnutrition, and their consequent effects on individual and community health. Tragically, misguided policies have prevented IPs from conducting essential activities such as selling their produce or harvesting root crops in mountains, which are actually among the safest places in the time of a pandemic.
Finally, as a Katribu special report detailed, we have also seen the continuation of logging, mining, and illegal construction in indigenous lands even amid lockdown. With protests stifled in the name of the pandemic, projects like the Kaliwa Dam are being pushed against the will of IPs. Just a few days ago, Manobo leader Bea Milda Ansado, a staunch defender of their ancestral lands from mining, was shot dead in Cotabato.
In light of the above concerns, it is imperative that, first of all, there must be inclusive decision-making in policies affecting indigenous communities. While the demands for quarantine are understandable, governments can tap into the social resources and wisdom of IPs, allowing them to take leadership in achieving shared goals (e.g., quarantine) while guaranteeing their rights and dignity.
Secondly, the needs and welfare of IPs must be taken into account in broader policies, from the transportation of locally-stranded individuals to the provision of “ayuda.” Common sense and adherence to principles like physical distancing—not one-size-fits-all thinking—should prevail.
Thirdly, government should provide support for health services, both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19; livelihood; and of course, education, making sure that indigenous youth are not left behind in an age of online learning.
Lastly, indigenous peoples must be protected from all kinds of violence and harassment, including attempts to molest ancestral lands. We cannot allow the pandemic to be another dark chapter in the long history of discrimination, oppression, and marginalization of indigenous peoples in the country.
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