Supporting Peru’s indigenous people in the fight against COVID-19

Source(s): United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

By Maria del Carmen Sacasa, Resident Representative, UNDP Peru

The impact of COVID-19 could accentuate already existing inequalities in countries like Peru. For this reason, although this country is still only at the initial stage of the emergency, it is necessary to look towards the indigenous world as soon as possible. This includes the communities that live closest to the cities, those living in isolation and those who have had initial contact.  

A few days after Peru decreed mandatory confinement as a measure to try and stop the coronavirus, the first indigenous leader tested positive and was placed in quarantine. Since then, the 55 Indigenous Peoples, including some 18 groups living in voluntary isolation and those who have had initial contact, have been leading a series of measures to protect themselves.

The Inter-Ethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon (AIDESEP) immediately summoned more than 2,000 communities to ratify the national lockdown, closing non-residents’ entry to indigenous communities to control the spread of the virus. This measure has been applied in the Asháninka territory in the central jungle. Likewise, the same federations are communicating the measures dictated by the Ministry of Health, translating the official materials into their languages.

Although these peoples are organizing themselves against this global threat, the Peruvian Ministry of Culture, is also strengthening its response to guarantee their health.

A challenge to health systems

This is important, because if we consider that the peak of this pandemic already represents a challenge for the health systems of many countries, this could be even more devastating for Indigenous Peoples in Peru. According to the latest national census, only 32 percent of these communities have health posts, of which 92 percent do not have medical staff. Only 1.7 percent of the health posts offer hospitalization. According to the Organization of Eastern Indigenous Peoples (ORPIO), based in the Loreto region, health posts are short of supplies, do not have the necessary medicines or equipment and have great limitations for the application of an intercultural approach. This approach is key for ensuring the inclusion of indigenous beliefs and visions and these are complemented by the actions promoted by the state.

This concern is also relevant for peoples in voluntary isolation or who have had initial contact. Mass deaths have already occurred from diseases such as flu or measles, for which they have no immunity. Therefore, these communities exercise their self-determination by isolating themselves. This is a measure that, as we too are experiencing right now, guarantees their survival. This is why it is so important that the Ministry of Culture has already suspended entry to Indigenous and Territorial Reserves.

The state is starting to implement specific actions and it is necessary to emphasize the need for these actions to be appropriate to indigenous beliefs and conceptions about diseases; as well as their living conditions. These measures must include the participation of all sectors at all stages, from providing information to ensuring adequate attention and equipment for all the health facilities attending these communities.

Security protocols

Likewise, emphasis must be placed on emergency care, with the establishment of security protocols that allow for rapid evacuation in the event that there is an outbreak of the virus within their communities.

As the Ministry of Culture has established, communication must be in indigenous languages and must be accessible to the community. A gender-sensitive approach must also be included, considering women’s role as principal caregivers for children and older adults within their homes.

AIDESEP has already shared their cosmovision; "the Amazon’s heat and sacred plants will stand up to COVID-19, but they will not be able to stop this tragedy," if adequate measures are not taken. UNDP reaffirms its commitment to the most vulnerable populations in the country. Together with the Peruvian State and indigenous organizations, we are prioritizing a series of actions to deal with COVID-19. This includes strengthening capacities at the community and territorial level through intercultural communication materials with an analysis of territorial vulnerability and long term wellbeing.

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