With the arrival of COVID-19, the historical disadvantage that indigenous peoples and Afro-descendant populations have faced in the enjoyment of their human rights has deepened and will worsen, as has been warned by the media, international organizations, government agencies, and social organizations.
This excessive impact is also due to the fact that most State decision-makers are unaware of the racism and structural and institutional discrimination that exists against these groups. This phenomenon is reflected in the absence of an inclusive, transversal, and intersectional perspective in the universal measures implemented during the health emergency.
Within this worrying context, various international bodies have attempted to point the way forward in the protection of the human rights of indigenous peoples, including during the pandemic. Thus, the Permanent Council of the OAS reiterated the imperative that member states defend democratic principles; ensure full respect for human rights and transparency; and prevent all forms of discrimination, including racism and xenophobia, in their response to the crisis.
In the same vein, the OAS Department of Inclusion prepared the “Guide to Practices for Rights-Focused and Inclusive Responses to the COVID-19 in the Americas,” which, on the one hand, urged States to keep citizens and representative indigenous organizations informed of the extraordinary measures adopted with cultural and linguistic relevance.
Coordinate with community authorities in order to implement measures within their indigenous lands and territories that take into account the situation of greater vulnerability of indigenous women in the face of COVID-19; guarantee access to regular basic education for indigenous children and adolescents through appropriate means, and adopt measures that ensure food security and access to basic hygiene items for these peoples who may be affected by mandatory social isolation measures.
On the other hand, in the same Guide, with respect to Afro-descendant populations – a topic in which I had the opportunity to participate – it was recommended that States adopt a differential approach, with an inclusive, cross-cutting, and intersectional perspective, with the incorporation of gender and ethnic variables; take into account the structural inequality in access to health, education, work, and basic services when implementing measures of social isolation; and guarantee the principle of equality and non-discrimination, taking into account ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity.
Likewise, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) adopted the resolution “Pandemic and Human Rights in the Americas”. This resolution calls on OAS member states to immediately and transversally adopt a human rights perspective in any strategy, policy, or state measure aimed at confronting the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences.
With regard to indigenous peoples, the IACHR recommended that States provide information on the pandemic in their languages; provide culturally relevant health care; unreservedly respect the lack of contact with indigenous peoples and segments of indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation due to the very serious impacts that the spread of COVID-19 may cause; and that States refrain from promoting legislative initiatives or productive and/or extractive projects in the territories of indigenous peoples during the time of the pandemic.
Recently, the Commission ordered precautionary measures in favour of the Yanomami and Ye’kwana indigenous peoples, urging the State of Brazil to take the necessary actions to protect their rights to health, life and integrity, through the implementation of an approach that recognizes their culture and access to available, accessible and quality medical care. While these measures apply exclusively to the requested State, they constitute an important precedent for the region.
With respect to Afro-descendant populations, the IACHR recommended that States include disaggregated data on ethno-racial origin in health records; guarantee access to health services; implement economic support measures for this population; and prevent excessive use of force based on ethno-racial origin and patterns of racial profiling in the context of curfews.
For its part, in the case of indigenous peoples, the UN Expert Mechanism noted that mitigating the disproportionate and adverse effects of COVID-19 on ethnic peoples and, consequently, fully guaranteeing their rights requires at least two major challenges for States. The first is the lack of quantitative information to follow up on cases of Indigenous peoples, since most States do not have disaggregated data.
For this reason, the Regional Indigenous Platform for COVID 19 “For Life and the Peoples” created the Information System “Impact of COVID-19 on territories and communities of indigenous peoples in the Americas,” with the objective of collecting and disseminating essential information to protect indigenous peoples.
The challenge of disaggregated data becomes more complex when information needs to be obtained on an intersectional basis. Thus, for example, in order to make visible how Covid-19 is differentially affecting indigenous women, the Continental Network of Indigenous Women of the Americas (ECMIA) and the Center for Indigenous Cultures of Peru (CHIRAPAQ) prepared the regional report “Indigenous Women of the Americas Facing the COVID-19 Pandemic.
The report highlights the fact that there is a broad consensus among indigenous women in the Americas on the increase in cases of gender-based violence due to prolonged cohabitation with aggressors in the home, both in cities and in communities.