In addition to the increased threats of morbidity and mortality from COVID-19, the pandemic may lead to severe consequences for the culture and the environment of indigenous populations.

COVID-19 affects elderly people disproportionately. Elders often have crucial leadership roles in the communities of indigenous people and are invaluable reservoirs of knowledge, language and history, so their passing will result in tremendous impacts on the community’s culture, well-being and way of life. This immense cultural loss may have devastating impacts on many already threatened and vulnerable communities. Furthermore, in some indigenous cultures, elders are leaders for the conservation of biodiversity, and the potential loss of this ancestral expertise could have catastrophic consequences, as indigenous people have been reported to safeguard up to 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity.

COVID-19 has also endangered the survival of many languages only spoken by indigenous people and that may not be documented in writing. Linguists were documenting the languages Thiinma and Warriyangga from their last remaining fluent speaker, who is 86 years old, before the work was disrupted by the pandemic and put on pause during a critical moment for the survival of these languages. In Brazil alone, there are 274 indigenous languages spoken and many of these are at increased risk of extinction due to the impacts of COVID-19.

In areas where the populations of indigenous people are smaller, an outbreak could have devastating effects on the survival of the community. In India, ten members of the Greater Andamanese tribe tested positive for COVID-19 which could have potentially devastating effects on the community that consists of only 50 members.

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Editor's note

Author: Astrid Hasund Thorseth

Reviewers: Delmo Roncarati Vilela, Bethany Caruso, Susannah Mayhew, Sian White

Last update: 28.10.20

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