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COVID-19 Exacerbating Inequality, Marginalization Faced by Indigenous Peoples, Speakers Underline, as Permanent Forum Continues Session

States must ensure the protection of indigenous peoples affected by the COVID-19 pandemic through timely, inclusive and equitable access to quality and affordable health-care services, including vaccines, speakers told the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues today as the body continued its 2021 session.

“For Inuit, the pandemic has revealed that there is now an even more urgent need to remedy the longstanding infrastructure deficit that contributes to vulnerability and underlies the health challenges experienced by too many of our people,” said a representative from the Inuit Circumpolar Council in the Arctic.

The lack of housing, overcrowding, lack of potable water, food insecurity, lower life expectancy, suicide, lack of health care clinics and a high prevalence of tuberculosis are among the inequities experienced by Inuit people that are directly linked to poor infrastructure, she said, stressing that they have seen how the spread of disease can happen quickly.

Marc Miller, Minister of Indigenous Services of Canada, acknowledged that COVID-19 has exacerbated the inequality and marginalization experienced by First Nations, Inuit and Métis, impacting their health, safety, food security, well-being and livelihoods.

“Listening to the needs of indigenous peoples and working collaboratively to address them is a key priority for Canada,” he said, highlighting that indigenous communities in his country are leading the design and delivery of highly effective and culturally appropriate responses to COVID-19, with the wisdom of traditional ways of knowing and doing.  The Government has increased funding to support indigenous communities to make their own decisions about where and what critical supports are needed, he added.

At the outset of today’s session, the Forum heard the introduction of two reports.

Introducing the “International expert group meeting on the theme ‘Indigenous peoples and pandemics’” (document E/C.19/2021/7), Forum member Geoffrey Roth (United States) said that experts and indigenous people met in December 2020 to discuss the impacts of pandemics on indigenous peoples.  In his country, indigenous communities have seen 1.6 times more cases, 3.5 times higher hospitalizations and 2.4 times as many deaths than non-Hispanic white individuals, he noted.

He said the report recommends that States should ensure access to education for indigenous children and youth who are learning remotely or in person, particularly those living in rural areas.  Distance learning plans must include solutions that address limited access to the Internet, connectivity and electricity.

States and international organizations should mobilize financial resources to adequately respond to indigenous peoples’ realities during the COVID-19 pandemic and should also prepare and disseminate culturally appropriate information in indigenous languages, he continued.

He urged the World Health Organization (WHO) to convene regional summits on the critical situation of indigenous peoples’ health with the participation of State health ministers and indigenous peoples’ organizations.

Presenting the study on “The rights of indigenous peoples in Latin America and the Caribbean in the context of the exceptional measures adopted during the pandemic” (document E/C.19/2021/9), author and Forum member Darío José Mejía Montalvo (Colombia) said that the pandemic period has represented the summary of the historical relationship between nation States and indigenous peoples.

The States have been strong and effective to establish mechanisms of territorial control, but not so in recognizing ethnic and cultural diversity, he said.  In the region, indigenous peoples have been excluded from the governance of the pandemic.  Governments have erroneously assumed indigenous peoples are a homogeneous population, imposing generic measures on them.

He recommended, among others, that States develop a regional health and vaccination strategy for indigenous peoples, intensify measures to control deforestation and other extractive processes in indigenous territories, and strengthen the institutional framework for environmental surveillance.

Several Forum members commented on the two reports, with Irma Pineda Santiago (Mexico) proposing the establishment of a special fund for economic recovery of indigenous peoples.

Vital Bambanze (Burundi) said he wished to hear figures related to the impacts of the pandemic on indigenous communities in Africa and Asia, while expressing his support for a meeting between public health authorities and indigenous communities.

Aleksei Tsykarev (Russian Federation) described how indigenous peoples are left out in access to public systems in a republic in his country.  Turning to immunization, he said some vaccines are approved by WHO quickly and others take time due to political reasons, proposing cooperation, rather than competition, on science.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim (Chad) stressed the need for better border controls for indigenous peoples who cannot pass boundaries to get resources, proposing COVID-19 and green recovery responses that include the needs of indigenous peoples.  If indigenous communities do not have reliable information, they cannot build back better, she stressed.

Lourdes Tibán Guala (Ecuador) underscored the need for States to recognize alternative medicines and ancestral knowledge of indigenous peoples because they know how to control their territory.

Bornface Museke Mate (Namibia) expressed his concern that indigenous peoples in remote areas do not have access to information, urging the United Nations specialized agencies to examine the issue of information availability in indigenous languages.

Grigory E. Lukiyantsev (Russian Federation) agreed that politicization of vaccination should be avoided as vaccines should be accessible to all, including indigenous peoples, without discrimination.  Vaccine passports should in no way lead to the deprivation of the rights of indigenous peoples.

In the ensuing discussion, representatives of Governments and indigenous organizations exchanged views.  While delegates emphasized measures implemented by their Governments for indigenous populations, speakers from indigenous groups urged States to do more to address the remaining gaps in policies.

The representative of Mexico said that his Government has a data collection system that enabled daily reports of COVID-19 cases and infection rates for indigenous regions.  The National Institute of Indigenous Peoples is preparing a comprehensive regional development plans, aiming to identify strategies that contribute to the recovery of adverse economic conditions caused by COVID-19.

The representative of Colombia said the Government created COVID-19-related guides in indigenous languages and established a dialogue forum with indigenous communities on contingency plans, aiming to achieve sustainable recovery inclusive of indigenous peoples.

The representative of Australia said that his country is making sure that voices of indigenous peoples are heard in policymaking, having been able to minimize the spread of COVID-19 with genuine partnership with them.  In fact, the infection rate among the indigenous communities is lower than other populations in his country.  In vaccine rollout, Aboriginal people are prioritized alongside health workers.

The representative of Denmark, also speaking for Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, said that restrictions on border traffic have had a significant impact on the Sami people as they are divided by the borders of four States.  The engagement and meaningful participation of indigenous peoples, in particular women and girls, are paramount in the pandemic response and recovery plans.

The speaker from the United Confederation of Taino People said that the mandate of the Permanent Forum should be expanded to include monitoring and reporting on implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the body should convene a meeting of experts and indigenous peoples on the situation of indigenous peoples in non-self-governing and non-incorporated territories, and report the outcome to its 2022 annual session.

The speaker from the Sámi Parliament in Norway stressed the need for an International Decade of Indigenous Languages, also recommending that the States with borders crossing indigenous homelands coordinate and harmonize pandemic regulations and restrictions.

The speaker from the Coordinating Body of the Indigenous Organizations in the Amazon Basin said local indigenous communities are the guardians of forests and territory.  But half of their lands are not legally granted, he said, stressing that only by granting their territorial rights can they fight against pandemics and climate change.

The speaker from the Asian Caucus said that some Asian countries are rich in mineral resources and longstanding hosts to some of the biggest mining companies.  In addition, she warned, infrastructure, tourism, agro-industrial, energy and conservation initiatives by States and the private sector renege on indigenous peoples’ lands, territories and resources under the name of free trade, liberalization and deregulation.

The speaker from FILAC, representing the Inga people in Colombia, recommended that vaccine campaigns consider cultural sensitivity and languages of indigenous peoples, ensuring their participation in the design of responses.

Making concluding remarks, Mr. Montalvo said many issues raised by the speakers from Latin America are relevant to other regions, stressing the need for regional summits.

Mr. Roth said that youth suicide and mental health issues are timely as these problems are most acutely experienced by populations traditionally marginalized.  He also reiterated the global call for “vaccines for all” without politization.  Given mutations of viruses, indigenous communities might have to get ready for annual immunizations, he said, calling for a round-table discussion between WHO and the Permanent Forum.

The representatives of Venezuela, Peru, Russian Federation, Guatemala, Norway, Brazil, China, New Zealand, Chile, Philippines and Ukraine also participated in today’s discussion, as did speakers from Nation of Hawaii, Raipon, Confederation Sindical Unica de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia, Land Is Life, Associacao Dos Povos Karipuna, Mujeres Indigenas por la Conservacion, Investigacion y Aprovechamiento de los Recursos Naturales, Forest Peoples Programme and Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation.

The Permanent Forum will hold its next virtual informal meeting at 9 a.m., Thursday, 22 April, to begin its consideration of an agenda item titled “Human rights dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples.”


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