COVID-19 affects everyone but it does not impact evenly on all populations. In this report from the ground, African indigenous leaders share with UNESCO their experiences of the onset of the global pandemic in their communities. They speak of the generosity, solidarity and responsiveness of their communities and organizations.
UNESCO has developed valuable partnerships with indigenous peoples’ partner organizations. The Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC) was one of the first indigenous peoples’ organizations to establish an official partnership with UNESCO and participate in programme initiatives with the Sectors for Natural Sciences, Education and Culture. The Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (LINKS) programme in the Natural Sciences Sector recently undertook consultations with IPACC indigenous leaders in seven African countries (Botswana, Chad, DR Congo, Kenya, Morocco, Niger and South Africa) to understand their current context, concerns and expectations of UNESCO within the context of COVID-19 pandemic.
Indigenous leaders reported that they are mobilizing for health care support at village level. In all countries, indigenous peoples’ organisations have self-mobilised to communicate in local languages, provide soap or food parcels to households, work with health authorities and attempt to explain in local languages the types of preventative actions to be taken.
Indigenous leaders in southern Africa pointed to the historic effectiveness of their HIV/AIDS primary health care communication and home care interventions. The experience of working with HIV and AIDS, as well as other conditions such as tuberculosis, provide a framework for education and care amongst indigenous peoples in rural areas. The primary line of defence is good communication and successful prevention. Existing primary health care networks, including community-based health educators, are important resources which could be supported and encouraged during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Indigenous leaders believe that UNESCO’s insights into appropriate cultural approaches to communication and education can help Member States adjust public health responses to the needs of rural, remote rural and vulnerable peri-urban contexts. Indigenous leaders called for greater social inclusion, especially with regard to equitable access to State services during and after the pandemic.
Major concerns cited by indigenous leaders include that, in their context of poverty or being on the periphery of the wage economy, the decision by most governments to shut down rural marketplaces has had a major impact on fragile economies. In poor urban areas, people are experiencing food insecurity. In rural areas, people have access to their own livestock, small crops or wild food stuffs, but restrictions on trade and movement place strain on community resources.
The seasons are not going to wait on COVID. Herders need to move their livestock.
For nomadic herders, if they cannot move their livestock across district boundaries, get to an abattoir or move across national borders for grazing, they are at risk of a crisis of overgrazing and starvation of livestock. Being prevented from selling milk, small livestock or wild products in local markets removes their only income.
UNESCO observed that the situation of indigenous peoples varies from country to country, and also owing to the pandemic still being relatively new in Africa, the infections are currently concentrated in major metropolitan areas. Some indigenous leaders reported overuse of force by security forces when urban areas went into lockdown. Though this was a concern, leaders said that indigenous peoples were not singled out. In the troubled Sahel region, prevention of the pandemic is perceived as difficult to prioritize, relative to serious and ongoing problems of insecurity and armed conflict.
Photo: Mbororo herders, Chad. © AFPAT
Communication as a key to prevention
Indigenous leaders reported different degrees of communication between authorities and indigenous peoples. Some sub-national governments specifically communicated with indigenous villagers; in other cases, no specific efforts were made. Some countries managed to broadcast advisory information in indigenous languages though there was no print media available in indigenous languages. Most governments promote washing hands with soap and water, while in arid regions, water is scarce, and soap is considered a luxury item.
With limited access to information about COVID-19, indigenous peoples were struggling to understand the disease. At the time of the interviews, many had not yet seen its symptoms and in those places where it was present, the symptoms were diverse and unpredictable. People struggle to distinguish the onset of COVID-19 from malaria, dengue or other conditions. Though health care has been improving across Africa, for indigenous peoples in rural areas, COVID-19 is only one disease amongst many which threaten peoples’ health and well-being.
West African leaders decried the explosion of misinformation in social media. On social media, conspiracy theories and incorrect science are circulating better than accurate information. This is causing confusion and making it difficult to set up serious prevention measures.
Photo: AFPAT shares information on COVID-19 prevention with Mbororo herders in Chad. © AFPAT
Access to care and local realities
Community leaders shared how communities traditionally deal with health crises and treatment, mostly relying on local traditional medicines and home care. They expressed concerns about how their cultures are perceived as different and not compliant. With confinements causing incomes to reduce suddenly, families are unwilling or unable to make the journey with sick people to clinics which might mean violating confinement or entail costs that they could not afford. For people in remote areas, transport of frail or sick people poses a major challenge and treatment options are limited if you manage to get to a hospital. People anticipate that they will be required to care for those who are sick at home with traditional means. Other than the advisories on washing hands, indigenous leaders asked for further advice and communication on home-based care.
Photo: Anita Diphetogo Lekgowas distributes relief packages to San families, Khwai, Botswana. © TaneKoTeemahane
Access to education during the pandemic
In middle-income African countries, indigenous peoples expressed concern that internet-based education is out of reach for indigenous and other rural children. Indigenous children struggle to participate in regular schooling due to discrimination, poverty and restrictive language policies. Internet-based education or even home schooling is seen as something for communities with access to electricity and economic means for technology.
In addition, the virus and its contamination are not [the basis of] discrimination, everyone is vulnerable and exposed to contamination, however the response of authorities may be so, that is to say, discriminatory.
Policy-making: Responding to local needs within a global pandemic
Indigenous leaders emphasized that they were sympathetic to government efforts to protect the public and not overwhelm the fragile health services, while at the same time, they were concerned about the fact that decision-making happened so fast that the governments in Africa did not have the time to elaborate policies that could accommodate the diverse needs of the population, including indigenous peoples whose livelihoods rely on mobility within their territory and access to natural resources. Confinement has in some cases placed people in vulnerable situations of food insecurity while strategies are available for the needs of urban populations.
Photo: Petrus Vaalbooi, San leader, helps distribute IPACC relief packages, Andriesvale, South Africa © Johann Vaalbooi
How I wish UNESCO could support, within its framework or with other partners, … sustainability… of the San of Botswana. [COVID-19 is] a socio-economic disaster which the San people face in Botswana, [that] cannot be addressed with rhetoric and narratives, but rather requires commitment for capital investment towards supporting sustainable livelihood options of their choice.
They urged that there should be greater dialogue with decision-makers, scientists and indigenous peoples to find methods that would allow basic economic activity to continue while reducing infection risks. Leaders emphasized the serious limits to their poverty context and the challenges of expecting people to survive or to comply when their income is cut off. They placed an emphasis on the need for financial assistance and support for food security during the confinement measures. Rural financial assistance should address short term urgent needs and look at longer term capacity building.
UNESCO’s potential role
Indigenous leaders throughout the Africa region felt that UNESCO has an important role to play, notably in helping the different actors understand how culture and communications can facilitate and reinforce public health in culturally, linguistically, economically and geographically diverse contexts.
The view is that UNESCO can help governments and communities understand the need for effective communication in local languages and that the different contexts of indigenous peoples, require consideration of their different needs and approaches within a pandemic situation.
UNESCO’s role in combatting misinformation and disinformation is less well understood but the need was noted in several countries. Social media presents both opportunities and threats for public health and education. Indigenous leaders remain unclear how formal education is meant to proceed during and after confinement periods. UNESCO has helped raise awareness about the role of indigenous languages through a series of targeted actions, presented below (Section “Media and Communications”).
In Africa, UNESCO, in partnership with the Innovation for Policy Foundation (i4policy.org), launched the online campaign “DontGoViral” to crowdsource local openly licensed content to inform communities across Africa about COVID-19. The campaign addresses the urgent need to ensure access to culturally relevant and openly licensed information in local African languages in order to facilitate awareness-raising about how to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on the Continent.
UNESCO’s work with nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoralists on indigenous and local knowledge of climate and weather is seen as an asset in helping to sensitize governments about the appropriate measures that need to be taken in the different times of the year to prevent more contagions while ensuring community resilience by allowing pastoralists to continue their activities.
UNESCO Indigenous Peoples Bulletin
Issue 1: Indigenous Peoples and the COVID-19 pandemic (August 2020)
Top photo: AFPAT shares information on COVID-19 prevention with Mbororo herders in Chad. © AFPAT