PAHO urges significant role for indigenous, Afro-descendant voices in the COVID-19 response

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PAHO urges significant role for indigenous, Afro-descendant voices in the COVID-19 response

Saturday, October 31, 2020

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WASHINGTON, United States (CMC) — The Deputy Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Mary Lou Valdez, says Indigenous and Afro-descendant voices in the Americas, including the Caribbean, must be “front and centre” in the COVID-19 response.

Addressing the first of two high-level virtual meetings yesterday, Valdez said that, if no one is to be left behind during the COVID-19 pandemic efforts must be stepped up to ensure a “strong and coordinated response” with indigenous organisations and leaders. The meeting, The Impact of COVID-19 on indigenous peoples in the region of the Americas: Perspectives and opportunities', brought together public health experts with representatives from Indigenous and Afro-descendent groups to propose intercultural strategic approaches as a central component of COVID-19 response.

Said Valdez: "The region of the Americas is characterised by its rich multicultural and multi-ethnic heritage, yet indigenous and Afro-descendent populations are often subject to discrimination and exclusion, leading to health inequities."

She said that strategies that address these issues cannot be designed in isolation, nor be one-size-fits-all as “the participation of indigenous representatives as equal partners is essential”.

PAHO said that almost 55 million indigenous people live in Latin America and the Caribbean, and more than 7.5 million live in North America.

While data on the impact of COVID-19 on these populations remains limited, PAHO said that factors experienced by indigenous groups — including isolation, overcrowded living conditions, lack of access to good hygiene measures and higher incidence of pre-existing conditions, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes — place them at increased risk of transmission and severity of the disease.

Since the pandemic began in the region, PAHO said over 168,000 cases of COVID-19, including almost 3,500 deaths, have been reported among indigenous peoples in 12 countries.

In areas of the Amazon basin, including Roraima and Amapa, and border areas of French Guiana, indigenous populations are over 10 times more likely to contract COVID-19 than others living in non-Amazon basin areas, PAHO said.

United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people, Francisco Cali Tzay, said that indigenous populations in the region are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

“The pandemic has also exacerbated racism and stigma towards indigenous communities — accusing them of not respecting public health measures and blaming them for the high rates of infection,” he said.

President of the Directing Council of the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC), Mirna Cunningham, and Tarcila Rivera Zea, director of the Center for Indigenous Cultures of Peru (CHIRAPAQ), also participated as panellists in the meeting.

Referring to the need to bridge gaps between traditional and western medicine, PAHO Assistant Director, Dr Jarbas Barbosa, called for a solutions-focused approach.

“How can we amplify effective measures that have been implemented locally to address issues such as access to culturally-sensitive primary health care services, and to ensure dialogue between indigenous leaders and health authorities?” he asked.

PAHO said its representatives, as well as ministries of health and indigenous groups, proposed a series of actions in the meeting “to ensure that the unique needs of indigenous populations are integrated in country COVID-19 response plans”.

These include guidelines for quarantine and physical distancing that take into account cultural traditions and customs; the availability of information and risk communications material in indigenous languages; greater recognition of the social and environmental determinants of health; and increased and systematic collection of disaggregated data to identify priorities and monitor actions.

“Indigenous peoples are careful custodians of a wealth of traditional knowledge and practices, languages and cultures, which includes time-tested responses to crises,” said Valdez. “Investing in your health is an investment in all of our futures”.

The second high-level meeting will look at the impact of COVID-19 on Afro-descendant populations in the region. It is scheduled to be convened on November 17.

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