The situation of Latin America’s indigenous population and the impact of COVID-19

May 14, 2020

The indigenous population is one of the most socially vulnerable groups in the world.

Note: This blog is part of Lustig, N. & Tommasi, M. (2020). El COVID-19 y la protección social de los grupos pobres y vulnerables. UNDP. (Forthcoming)

The indigenous population is one of the most socially vulnerable groups in the world. There are a number of instruments that recognize their rights and provide protection due to this status.[1] The United Nations has made numerous observations, expressing concern at the higher levels of morbidity and mortality in this population and highlighting the “cumulative and more intense harm” experienced by indigenous peoples. (ECLAC). “Past” epidemics continue to pose a threat to communities today, as exemplified by tuberculosis, which has a high prevalence in indigenous communities. “Introduced contagious infectious diseases have already caused a serious health problem among indigenous peoples already due to the high prevalence of such diseases and very poor health services. Coronavirus would further aggravate this situation,” says Peruvian anthropologist Beatriz Huertas.

The impact of crises highlights the degree of vulnerability of certain populations: in addition to having poorer living conditions, they are more sensitive to the impacts of crises. Some preliminary analyses already calculated that the COVID-19 crisis is having a major effect on inequality, since it has a more burdensome impact on the low-income population. In most respects, the situation of indigenous peoples in particular is much worse than that of other, non-indigenous people who share similar characteristics, such as level of education, age, place of rural or urban residence, type of work and household. This points to the existence of barriers that affect them in a distinct and exclusionary manner. A useful precedent is the impact of the H1N1 flu virus, which was much greater on indigenous communities in New Zealand, Australia and Canada. While figures for Latin America are unclear, mortality from influenza and H1N1 was between four and seven times higher in indigenous populations. This is because factors such as poor access to sanitation, and overcrowding increase morbidity, and poor health exposes this population to a high risk of mortality during epidemics.

There are as yet few cases of infection with the virus in indigenous people, but there is still deep concern about the progress of the virus.  Several communities have decided to isolate themselves, and they have called on governments to prevent outsiders from entering their communities. This has also been the recommendation of some doctors and anthropologists. While concern has been expressed about the economic impact, the health consequences of the pandemic could destroy already very fragile communities.

The situation of indigenous communities

A few things should be noted about the situation of indigenous communities. Indigenous communities are very diverse, and are even defined differently by each country. Although there are certain similarities between the indigenous peoples of the Americas (relationship with Mother Nature, the burden of exclusion), the situation is different in each country, with different percentages of indigenous populations. “It is important to take this into consideration and to use the statistics with caution” (PAHO). To a large extent, these problems stem from the fact that communities are marginalized and have few representatives of their own. It is also very difficult to measure the results achieved by indigenous representatives over the past decades in increasing visibility and implementing health solutions.

The indigenous population of Latin America consists of approximately 50 million people, who belong to 500 different ethnic groups. The largest populations (in absolute and relative terms) are in Mexico, Guatemala, Peru and Bolivia. In total, the indigenous population accounts for 8 percent of the region’s population. However, they make up 14 percent of the population living in poverty and 17 percent of population living in extreme poverty. Material poverty affects 43 percent of indigenous households in the region —that is, double the proportion of the rest of the population—and extreme poverty is 2.7 times greater.

According to World Bank statistics, 48 percent live in an urban region, but this percentage varies greatly according to the country. Communities in urban centres generally have better living conditions. However, urban migration also exposes them to greater marginalization with little access to land.

The employment situation of indigenous communities reveals a prevalence of precariousness and low-skilled jobs. The limited employment of indigenous communities has been within these kinds of employment relationship, which is the result of the threat of climate change to their livelihoods. Indigenous peoples bear a disproportionate burden of the negative impacts of climate change. For example, the indigenous peoples of Gran Chaco have sought employment in mining activities that offer precarious and seasonal paid work alongside hunting and harvesting activities.

With respect to access to education, there has been an increase in schooling throughout Latin America as a result of the construction of schools in the communities. However, indigenous peoples are the group with the least access. In Brazil, less than 1 percent of the indigenous population has access to higher education, 2.1 percent to secondary school and 20.5 percent to primary education in communities. Differences in access to education are much lower than in the rest of the population, and vary greatly between communities: for example, 15 percent of the Mapuche communities in Argentina have access to higher education, while the same figure stands at 0.5 percent for the Wichi communities in the north. It is the population with the highest drop-out rate due to child labour and exploitation.

The health situation is extremely fragile, as the following quote reveals:

“Local survey figures show the highest incidence in indigenous peoples of diseases that are markers of inequality, such as tuberculosis; increased maternal and infant mortality, unwanted pregnancies and sexual abuse resulting from structural violence; incidence of chronic diseases caused by environmental pollution and mining industries; mental health problems that mainly affect indigenous youth, such as the high rates of suicide among indigenous people recorded in several countries in the region. The structural discrimination that affects indigenous peoples, along with the impoverishment resulting from the systematic plunder of their territories and the loss of traditional ways of life, obstacles to political participation and institutionalized racism, have a strong adverse impact on the health of indigenous individuals and communities (ECLAC)

The indigenous population has less access to health services: 50 percent of indigenous adults over 35 years of age suffer from type 2 diabetes; life expectancy is 20 years less; and infant mortality is 3 to 5 times greater than in the rest of the population in Venezuela and Brazil. The United Nations has particularly warned about the failure to eradicate epidemiological diseases such as tuberculosis.

With respect to the scope of public policies, we note that it is fundamental for indigenous communities to be involved in the decision-making process. In addition to receiving little investment from the state, the lack of inclusion of these communities or recognition of their cultural diversity have led to the failure of many of the policies implemented. Lack of environmental protection by the state leads to worsening conditions linked to malnutrition and poor nutrition, endemic parasitosis, diabetes, and problems associated with the use of highly toxic and polluting products by agricultural production companies.


Pandemic impact scenario

Given the conditions in which these communities live, COVID-19 is a real threat, in aspects from poor health conditions and overcrowding to the lack of access to adequate sanitation facilities. Communities have been properly informed of the pandemic and are deeply concerned. In particular, uncontacted or poorly connected tribes are the most vulnerable to this phenomenon. Latin America’s indigenous population was reduced by 95 percent over 300 years through diseases spread by colonizers. This is a phenomenon that persists and a major concern for recently contacted communities who have suffered an epidemic as a result of that contact. The combination of Coronavirus with other diseases such as tuberculosis, which has a high prevalence, leads to high mortality.

Perceptions have been revealed through protests by a number of groups, and various reports in the media. Concern about disease is very widespread, since it is a phenomenon that threatens the livelihoods of these communities. However, due to the day-to-day nature of their livelihoods, isolation measures are difficult to accomplish.[2] According to many organizations, it is the environmental damage and trafficking in protected species and wildlife that result from forest destruction that generate such pandemics.

Several countries including Argentina, Peru and Ecuador have implemented measures to restrict social contact. Colombia and Australia, for example, have entirely shut down outside access to the areas where indigenous communities live. While they find it impossible to comply with isolation requirements, many communities have put up barricades and isolated themselves from outsiders, organizing themselves when they need to leave the community for provisions. In Brazil, for example, where no measures were implemented, groups such as Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica [Indigenous Coordinating Body for the Amazon Basin - COICA], representing indigenous Amazonians in nine countries, are demanding access restrictions.

As discussed previously, full compliance with the isolation measures imposed by governments is difficult, since these populations have no savings capacity and need to work on a daily basis to survive. Some people have expressed a great deal of fear of the police due to the significant brutality used in preventing contagion during previous epidemics. Some basic necessities provided by the state may also be affected by the measures.

The indigenous population is also the most vulnerable in terms of economic consequences. As discussed, the jobs held by indigenous people are low-skilled and less stable, and are those worst affected by economic impacts. In the case of countries that have implemented a very strict lockdown, such as Argentina, people who carry out occasional activities to ensure a basic livelihood have been left unable to work. Moreover, according to ECLAC tourism is the most affected activity, and this will have great consequences for those indigenous communities in countries such as Peru and Mexico who are involved in tourism activities. 

Interactive statistics on impact:

ECLAC impact monitoring

Case statistics:

[1] American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 1989 (No. 169), Convention on Biological Diversity (United Nations) 1992.

[2] In the communities of the Gran Chaco, a number of people have protested in concern at the very high number of deaths from malnutrition this year. The pandemic has hit at a time when they are very vulnerable.

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