Games, songs to shield Asia-Pacific indigenous people from coronavirus

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An indigenous man from the Torres Strait Islands wears a traditional dress as he performs during a welcoming ceremony at Government House in Sydney, Australia, June 28, 2017. REUTERS/David Gray

Games, songs and tourism bans are some of the measures that authorities and human rights groups from Australia to India are using to keep indigenous people safe from the coronavirus.

More than 1 million people have been infected across the world and about 53,000 have died from the coronavirus, according to a Reuters tally.

Cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed among indigenous people in Colombia, Brazil and Malaysia, fanning fears of a rapid spread among communities with little immunity to diseases and limited healthcare access.

“We know from the 2009 H1N1 outbreak that the Aboriginal population had a death rate of four times that of the general population,” said Blair McFarland, operations manager at non-profit Central Australia Youth Link Up Service (CAYLUS).

“Chronic illnesses, overcrowding and lack of facilities such as running water and proper sanitation among the remote indigenous communities makes them particularly vulnerable,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Friday.

About half the adult indigenous population suffers from a major chronic condition such as heart or kidney disease, and their immune systems are weakened by malnutrition, he said.

The risks are compounded by their communal way of living and living conditions, with one in eight indigenous Australian people in overcrowded housing.

Authorities in Australia have asked people including tourists to avoid travelling to remote indigenous areas, and advised older community members to self-isolate.

A campaign in Aboriginal languages includes songs and videos with the theme “Stay on Country, Care for Family”.

CAYLUS has also launched a cricket game that teaches social distancing, as well as a dance video challenge on staying safe.

LIMIT CONTACT

Across Asia, the rapid pace of deforestation, urbanisation and road building are major factors in the spread of infectious diseases including the coronavirus, health experts say.

In Malaysia, where palm oil plantations have taken over vast swaths of forest land, the first infection of an indigenous ‘Orang Asli’ person was reported last week. Many tribal members have since fled deep into the forest.

On India‘s Andaman and Nicobar islands, a highway that passes through indigenous territory on the Andaman island has brought members of a remote community in close contact with the general population.

Ten cases of the coronavirus have been reported in the capital Port Blair, although authorities say there are no cases among the tribal groups.

Nevertheless, authorities have banned all non-essential movement on the Andaman highway and moved some tribal communities deep into the forest.

“There are strict measures in place to limit contact with outsiders and reduce the chance of infection,” said K.R. Meena, principal secretary of health for the islands.

Authorities must also ensure that community institutions are involved in decisions and that members are allowed to continue their daily activities, said Manish Chandi, a researcher at the Andaman Nicobar Tribal Research and Training Institute.

“The indigenous islanders rely on negotiation, communication and exchanges amongst themselves for daily livelihood, and this should be allowed to continue. This will only strengthen their ability to cope with such a crisis,” he said.

“With a single lapse, the livelihood and life of each resident of these islands will be put at great risk.”

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