People's Stories Indigenous People

Intensify efforts to prevent further spread of COVID-19 among indigenous people in the Americas
by Pan American Health Organization (PAHO)
July 2020 (WHO)
Although people of all walks of life are affected by COVID-19, the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people are especially at risk. That is true of indigenous peoples all over the world, in urban or remote areas.
There are up to 500 million indigenous peoples worldwide, in over 90 countries. Indigenous peoples have unique cultures and languages, and deep relationships with the environment. Like other vulnerable groups, indigenous peoples face many challenges.
This includes a lack of political representation, economic marginalization and lack of access to health, education and social services.
Indigenous peoples often have a high burden of poverty, unemployment, malnutrition and both communicable and non-communicable diseases, making them more vulnerable to COVID-19 and its severe outcomes.
Although COVID-19 is a risk for all indigenous peoples globally, WHO is deeply concerned about the impact of the virus on indigenous peoples in the Americas, which remains the current epicenter of the pandemic.
As of the 6th of July, more than 70,000 cases have been reported among indigenous peoples in the Americas, and more than 2000 deaths.
20 July 2020
PAHO calls on countries to intensify efforts to prevent further spread of COVID-19 among indigenous people in the Americas
Indigenous peoples in several countries in the Americas are experiencing rising number of cases and deaths from COVID-19, and the Pan American Health Organization, in a new epidemiological alert, urged health authorities “to intensify efforts in order to prevent further spread of infection within these communities, as well as to ensure adequate access to healthcare services.”
PAHO’s alert called to strengthen case management using culturally appropriate approaches, and to implement preventive measures across all levels of the health system to reduce mortality associated with COVID-19.
“The COVID-19 pandemic poses a risk to the health of indigenous peoples, both those living in urban areas and those living in remote settlements or isolated areas, where access to health services is a challenge and there is often a limited capacity to serve the entire population", says the PAHO alert.
To interrupt the transmission of COVID-19 in indigenous communities, PAHO recommends that indigenous leaders participate in actions to detect cases early, obtain laboratory confirmation, isolate positive cases, and trace and quarantine their contacts.
“Among indigenous populations, either living in remote settlements or isolated in urban areas, some of the risk factors that may be associated with higher COVID-19 mortality rates include malnutrition, insufficient access or complete lack of access to health systems as well as to potable water and basic sanitation, in addition to the existing high burden of parasitic diseases,” the PAHO document notes.
PAHO analyzed the COVID-19 situation among the indigenous populations in various countries. In Bolivia, 31,249 cases and 1,135 deaths were reported. Brazil reported 7,946 confirmed cases and 177 deaths among indigenous peoples throughout the country. Canada had 334 confirmed cases including 6 deaths in five provinces. As of 6 July, there have been 1,534 confirmed cases, including 73 deaths, reported among indigenous people in Colombia, whereas in Ecuador there have been 4,498 confirmed cases, including 144 deaths.
In Mexico, there have been 4,092 confirmed cases, including 649 deaths, in indigenous populations. In the United States, there have been 22,539 confirmed cases reported across 12 areas of the Indian Health Service. And in Venezuela, there have been 152 confirmed cases, including one death, reported among indigenous peoples.
COVID-19 surveillance strategies in indigenous communities should include community surveillance conducted by residents, as well as primary care, hospital, and health center observation, with special attention to reporting rumors of cases or deaths related to fever and shortness of breath that should be investigated to determine the cause and provide prompt healthcare to those affected, the PAHO alert says.
PAHO highlighted the importance of good communication on COVID-19 among indigenous communities, by using local languages and adapting messages to consider local practices and cultures with symbols and images where needed.
“The ways in which messages are transmitted must be validated by the indigenous populations themselves. Images used in documents and on social media should be inclusive and should never stigmatize indigenous peoples,” the document notes.
The alert recommends that health authorities foster exchanges between traditional practitioners, ancestral therapists, and other community members “so that specific measures such as social distancing, diagnosis, isolation, and treatment take into account their worldviews, existing ancestral practices, and contexts. The importance and meaning of traditional medicine for indigenous peoples should also be considered.”
PAHO also notes different strategies are needed for populations in urban areas, those residing in villages, indigenous migrant populations, or indigenous populations in voluntary isolation, “considering the vulnerability and exposure differences, and that not all indigenous communities will be affected by COVID-19 in the same way.”
PAHO is working closely with indigenous organizations from the Peruvian jungle, eastern Bolivia, the Ecuadorian Amazon, Colombian Amazon, and the Brazilian Amazon, represented by the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA).
June 2020
Indigenous populations: left behind in the COVID-19 response, by Kaitlin Curtice and Esther Choo. (The Lancet)
Scholar Annie Belcourt described Native American populations in the USA as having lives that are “challenging and short”. Globally, across countries and populations, Indigenous peoples face a greater burden of disease than non-Indigenous peoples, including cardiovascular disease and HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases, and have higher infant and maternal mortality and lower life expectancy.
Their health is impacted by epigenetic stressors of generational oppression and violence, including disproportionate numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women, lower educational attainment, and persistent poverty.
Further, health services for Indigenous populations are typically under-resourced with language and culture appropriate care a rarity.
Structural forces limit access to health care and systemic racism and discrimination towards Indigenous peoples can make it difficult to develop trusting relationships with non-Indigenous providers.
The health of Indigenous populations also has a greater vulnerability to the decline of the planet's natural resources, as their way of life is so intimately connected to waters, lands, and forests.
This is the situation into which the COVID-19 pandemic has arrived. The foundations of colonisation across the world that negatively impact Indigenous lives contribute to the spread of communicable diseases, especially on reservations and in rural areas through factors such as small dwellings, multigenerational living, and lack of access to preventive measures such as clean water, soap, and disinfectant.
As such, the COVID-19 pandemic is having a disproportionately devastating effect on Indigenous peoples: in Brazil, deaths among its Indigenous population are reportedly double that of the general population; in the USA, Navajo Nation has surpassed New York in numbers of per capita COVID-19 cases.
Even as the vulnerability of Indigenous populations to COVID-19 becomes apparent, they have already been left out of the first wave of relief. Addressing the needs of Indigenous populations is challenging because of their invisibility from the consciousness of the majority populations.
The invisibility of inequities is inherent to the inequities themselves: under-collecting or under-reporting health events prevents mobilisation of concern, allocation of resources, and a search for solutions.
Thus, Indigenous populations are likely to be left behind in the distribution of resources that are in short supply, from tests to personal protective equipment to ventilators and medications necessary for caring for critically ill patients.
A few steps need to occur so that aid to Indigenous populations is not excluded from the urgency of other COVID-19-related efforts. First, all data on disease or death rates must be disaggregated to show what is experienced by Indigenous groups; similarly, disaggregated data on the availability of testing, medicines, vaccines, health-care providers, and other resources used in this time should be tracked and used to ensure distribution meets the needs of these populations.
Data disaggregation should be structured to acknowledge the tremendous heterogeneity within Indigenous populations.
Governments should anticipate the need for emergency resources to support Indigenous populations and should support them as a vulnerable and autonomous group—for example, by supporting containment measures such as limiting travel in and out of their lands, as deemed necessary and appropriate by the communities themselves.
The public should recognise that government-led solutions have historically not been adequate, and make such communities a priority target for individual and private philanthropy. Such giving must first support efforts on the ground, devised and run by Indigenous communities themselves, and any COVID-19-related resources provided should be managed by the communities.
As the burden of COVID-19 increases among Indigenous communities, it will invariably take a toll on elders, who are the reservoirs of language and history. Their deaths would represent an immeasurable cultural loss.
Indigenous communities have much to teach us about how to live sustainably and communally in a time when individualistic efforts seem to trump care for the most vulnerable; investing in their health is an investment in all of our futures. Valuing the unique contribution of such communities demands that our goal with respect to their wellbeing should not simply be that they survive this pandemic, but that they thrive after it.


We lock up Indigenous Australians at four times the rate of black Americans
by Isabella Higgins, Linda Burney
June 2020
Australia had its own George Floyd moment, only it passed without international outrage, writes Isabella Higgins.
The deep anguish felt after the death of George Floyd is something Indigenous communities understand all too well, except here, they are still waiting for their moment of international reckoning.
The response in the United States to the death has been enormous, thousands taking to the streets to protest against the death of black men in the custody of white police officers.
But it was even bigger than that, the social media outcry has been impossible to ignore, George Floyd's death was noted by millions around the world.
For many it feels like a moment of awakening, of a struggle realised, but it's a bittersweet scenario for Indigenous families where similar issues are at play but with none of the global attention.
It's been more than 30 years since Australia started interrogating its own problem with Indigenous deaths in custody, but it's an issue that often fails to command social or political attention.
Many of the recommendations from the 1987 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody were never implemented, and it's estimated hundreds more have died in custody since.
As Australians took to social media to denounce the events occurring in America, many Indigenous communities were left wondering where is the outcry for my family?
So does Australia have less empathy for its own deaths in custody? Or is the American influence so great that as a country we understand their race struggles better than our own?
I've reported on many protests against Indigenous deaths in custody in Australia. The smallest was just a few dozen people, the biggest probably at best, a few hundred.
Never have I seen anything like what's happening in the United States right now.
Australia's relatively small population is part of the reason America's African American population is equivalent to about 43 million people, Australia's Indigenous population just 800,000 - but it's a deeper problem than that.
In some ways Australia's criminalisation of its black citizens is even more pronounced than the United States, but we don't have music, movies and TV shows explaining it to us as regularly.
In the US, African Americans make up about 14 per cent of the population, and roughly 30 per cent of the country's inmates.
Indigenous Australians make up 3 per cent of the population and about 30 per cent of the prison population.
We lock up Indigenous Australians at four times the rate of black Americans. It's an even more jarring figure in the youth detention system, where about 50 per cent of all detainees are Indigenous.
It's a crude and imperfect comparison, but it still paints a picture of our justice system.
One Australian case in particular that bears similarities to that of George Floyd is the 2015 death of Dunghutti man David Dungay in a Sydney prison.
Both men died while being physically restrained by officers, and after repeatedly exclaiming "I can't breathe."
I remember a protest held by David Dungay's family in Sydney. There were about 50 people there, and it received next to no media attention that day.
Not long after tens of thousands showed up to rally against Australia Day and climate change just a few blocks away.
No one has ever been charged for Dungay's death.
The largest protest I've seen in Australia around deaths in custody was last year in Alice Springs, where the community was mourning the loss of a young man.
Kumanjayi Walker, a 19-year-old Walpiri man, had been allegedly shot and killed by a white police officer in his home in the remote community of Yuendumu, home to just 1000 people.
Hundreds travelled hours away from their home in the heart of Australia to sit in the Alice Springs town square and call for justice.
There is the added complexity that in Indigenous communities like this one, English isn't a first language and there's added cultural protocols about who can speak out on behalf of their people.
I remember a young mother at the protest rocking a baby on her hip, she told me her biggest fear was that her baby son could one day end up as a man with bullet wounds in a coffin.
The police officer was charged with murder. It's yet to go to trial but it'll be one of the few cases where charges were pressed in relation to deaths in custody in Australia.
After the arrest, there were just a few small vigils mourning a young man.
America is the land of celebrity, a pop-culture powerhouse of the world, and while perhaps not equitably, African Americans do have some access to that international megaphone.
Barack Obama, Beyonce, Michael Jordan, Kanye West, Oprah Winfrey. Those kinds of aspirational household names taught the world African Americans should be respected.
For decades now, rap and hip-hop music have explained to us just some of the challenges of being black in America, with complex ideas about white privilege, power imbalances, inequity, a stacked justice system, all distilled in a catchy chorus.
From Tupac: "Can barely walk the city streets without a cop harassing me, searching me" to Kendrick Lamar: "We hate the po-po, wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho".
Australia has a crop of Indigenous celebrities, sports stars, musicians, actors, writers, a handful of politicians but nothing compared to America's influencers.
In a connected world, where activism and conversations start on social media, whether right or wrong, the words of the famous can be as good as gospel.
They speak in a language people understand, they have influence and they told us the death of George Floyd is not OK and you must speak up. And Australians did.
In Australia these incidents often occur in remote corners of the country, foreign to most of us, while most African-Americans police shootings occur in big cities.
Would the nation's understanding about what happened during the 2004 Palm Island riots be any clearer if it happened in a major city?
An Aboriginal man died in custody, it sparked fierce riots, the officer in charge was acquitted of manslaughter, then 12 years later in a civil case, the Federal Court determined the police actions were racist.
Where there are lots of people, there is a media presence, then there is public scrutiny, that leads to accountability. When terrible things happen in remote areas, they too easily slip under the radar.
As a regional reporter, some years ago I recall a riot breaking out in Woorabinda, a small central Queensland community.
A pregnant Indigenous woman had accused police of throwing her to the ground and mishandling her during a routine seatbelt check.
The town of about 900 people was furious at the police, they rioted for days, there were a few local reports after the fact, but for the most part the incident barely made it to public consciousness.
The incident was investigated by the Queensland Crime and Corruption Commission, but there was no follow up on the outcome.
If issues happen out of the sight of most Australians, out of sight of our social media feeds, it is easy to ignore them.
But America can tell you it'll take more than social media activism, memes about racism and protests to dismantle institutional racism.
America might have worldwide attention, all the power and influence of celebrity, and even a black president for eight years, but just like Australia, its justice problems are not going away.
2 June 2020
We have our own serious issues with deaths in custody, says Linda Burney on ABC News
ANDREW GEOGHEGAN: Well, the response in the United States to the death of George Floyd has been enormous, as we've seen. Thousands have taken to the streets to protest against the death of black men in the custody of white police officers. Now, here in Australia, Indigenous deaths in custody is a problem that often fails to command the same social and political attention. The Shadow Indigenous Affairs Spokeswoman, Linda Burney, joins us from Sydney.
GEOGHEGAN: As we've seen with those US protests, they tend to be reverberating now around the world. Is it likely that Australians will now question this nation's treatment to our Indigenous Australians?
BURNEY: Well, I make no comment on what's going on in America. That's not my place, except to say that I was listening to the radio overnight and I think it's become a much bigger issue than the death of Mr Floyd. And it seems to me that this is an issue of equality and frustration. In Australia, we had the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which still is a very significant reminder of the situation for First Nations people in this country. And it's a very big issue in the Aboriginal community. There have been over 430 deaths in custody since that Royal Commission, which examined 99 deaths. And we also know, Andrew, just in the last 12 months, there's been a death in Victoria, two deaths in Western Australia, and of course, the shooting death of Kumanjayi Walker just last November.
GEOGHEGAN: As you pointed out, more than 30 years since that Royal Commission. As far as the recommendations that were made since the Royal Commission, how many have been implemented successfully?
BURNEY: Well, not very many. What happened is that Royal Commission laid responsibility at both the Federal and state governments. And, of course, there was various committees set up to monitor the implementation. But I have to say that report of the recommendations of the Royal Commission were cherry-picked and not all of them were implemented anywhere. And I think that's the tragedy of it, really. Perhaps if they had been all implemented, we would not be seeing the terrible outcomes for First Nations people in custody in Australia that we see today.
There are many things that could be done to, I think, address the situation. But when you actually look at the statistics, they're absolutely stark. And these are just statistics. But they are also real people, Andrew. And that's what we've got to remember. In the Northern Territory, for example, something like 90 per cent of the adult prison population is Aboriginal. In many other states and territories, including Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, and New South Wales, the Indigenous prison population is over 30 per cent.
And one of the enormous tragedies is that the rate of Aboriginal children going into statutory care is up around 40 per cent across the country. And the rate of Aboriginal young people in custody is also absolutely enormous.
GEOGHEGAN: We saw that protest in Perth last night, essentially in support of the protests taking place in the United States, but more importantly, people at that protest in Perth were saying, 'Well, at the moment, Indigenous justice here does not get the same social, and political attention that it deserves'.
BURNEY: I think that probably people could say that particularly when you look at the seven days of absolute activism that's just grown and grown in America and is reaching out across the world, including the United Kingdom, including Australia, and I suspect a number of other places.
But when you really examine what the issues are for First Nations people in this country, it is a tragedy. The social justice outcomes are just absolutely appalling.
You have a look at the rate of Aboriginal people in jail and the reasons they go to jail. Many of them are very short sentences. There has to be a better way to do things.
And I think that this issue that's brought this to light in America is a chance for Australia to re-examine what the record is here and make some substantial changes into the way that custodial sentences are dealt with and the way in which Aboriginal people are incarcerated in Australia.
* The Coalition of Peaks is a representative body of around fifty Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community controlled peak organisations. Who come together as an act of self-determination to be formal partners with Australian governments on Closing the Gap on multiple disadvantages experienced by First Peoples:
June 2020
Children don't belong in prison
Everyone knows that children do best when they are supported, nurtured and loved. But across Australia, children as young as 10 can be arrested by police, charged with an offence, hauled before a court and locked away in youth prisons.
When children this young are forced through a criminal legal process at such a formative age, they can suffer immense harm – to their health, wellbeing and future.
Ten year old kids belong in schools and playgrounds, not placed in handcuffs, held in watchhouses or locked in prisons away from their families, community and culture. Governments can change this by raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years.
What needs to happen?
All Australian governments must raise the age at which children can be arrested or locked up from 10 to 14 years.
Australia’s low age of minimum criminal responsibility is well out of step with international standards. Children aged 10 to 13 years old are going through significant growth and development, and treating them like criminals through early contact with the criminal justice system can lead to irreparable harm and long term damage. Depriving young children of their liberty is depriving them of their childhood.
In just one year across Australia close to 600 children aged 10 to 13 years were locked up and thousands more were hauled through the criminal legal system. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are disproportionately impacted by these laws and pushed into prison cells at even higher rates, accounting for 70 per cent of these younger children in prisons.
There has been a chorus of calls both nationally and internationally from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, expert United Nations bodies, human rights organisations, medical and legal bodies, and academics for Australia to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility.

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