Alarm sounds for Indigenous communities, uncontacted tribes where coronavirus could “wreck havoc”

Aboriginal children wash their hands in Borroloola, in the Northern Territory.
Aboriginal children wash their hands in Borroloola, in the Northern Territory. Author: NACCHO
Indigenous communities —sometimes in remote settings— having more limited access to healthcare services, as well as semi- or uncontacted peoples, are among the vulnerable groups in the face of the progress of the coronavirus pandemic. Experts and organizations say the consequences of coronavirus expansion in these populations could be fatal. In this article, we look at the example of Australian Aboriginal peoples, and talk to Survival International for the specific case of uncontacted tribes.

Danger for Indigenous peoples: the example of Australia

Indigenous peoples —and this is true both in supposedly more developed countries, such as Canada or Australia, and in less ones, like Bolivia or Guatemala— have more limited and poor access to health resources. In addition, in many cases, they have higher rates of chronic diseases (cardiovascular, hepatic...) or cancers, factors that increase the person’s health risk in the face of a coronavirus infection.

In this The Conversation article, James Ward and Jason Agostino warn that, in Australia, this is coupled with overpopulation of Aboriginal households —especially in remote areas—, limited access to Covid-19 tests, insufficient information in Aboriginal languages, and less availability of health care staff, giving the pandemic enormous potential to “wreak havoc” in the communities.

Aboriginal peoples of Australia account for more than 760,000 people, some 3% of the country’s population.

Some of them live in well-connected cities and communities, while others reside in remote areas, away from urban centers and major transport routes.

Aboriginal communities have their own National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organization (NACCHO), which represents the 143 existing Aboriginal primary health care services, operated by the communities themselves throughout Australia. NACCHO director Pat Turner has raised an alert on Australian national radio ABC in the face of the coronavirus expansion in the country.

Contagions in remote Aboriginal communities would be “absolutely devastating,” she said, because there are not enough medical facilities and “no testing available” to detect infections. This occurs in a community context with “high levels of other illnesses”, which makes remote Aboriginal communities “especially vulnerable.” Turner summarizes: “We are the most vulnerable people in Australia.”

To all these considerations, the predictable economic bump that some communities will suffer must be added.

NACCHO director has asked authorities to send more mobile medical equipment and medical supplies, while has also called for the complete isolation of remote Aboriginal communities and the imposition of a 14-day quarantine on anyone who, for whatever reason, needs to travel there. On 16 March, the Northern Territory government —one of the self-governing units of the Australian federation— banned any “non-essential” visits to 70 remote communities. The communities, however, demand that the entire Northern Territory be in turn isolated from the rest of the country. Aboriginals account for some 30% of the Northern Territory’s population.

Some communities started making their own decisions days ago. The Northern Land Council annulled, 14 March, any “non-essential” permits for entry into the Aboriginal territories of the Top End, the northernmost region of the Northern Territory. The decision is meant to protect Aboriginal peoples from contagion. Two days later, the Central Land Council followed suit.

The Australian federal government, meanwhile, has set up an Aboriginal advisory group to prepare an emergency plan for the most vulnerable communities.

As of 20 March, Australia had confirmed more than 700 cases of coronavirus infection in the country —none in the Northern Territory.

Uncontacted tribes: “It is vital that absolutely no attempt to contact them is made”

As we said before, another Indigenous collective that finds itself in a specially vulnerable situation is the tribes that —unlike the Aboriginals— live semi-isolated or, directly, uncontacted by the external world.

To have a look onto their specific situation we have spoken to Jonathan Mazower (right photo), Communications Director of Survival International, an organization working since 1969 for the rights of those tribes.

Nationalia: Which are the main areas of immediate concern as regards these peoples peoples in the face of the spread of the coronavirus crisis?

Jonathan Mazower: Any infectious disease carried by visitors to indigenous areas is potentially lethal, including something as simple as the common cold; indigenous peoples have a higher vulnerability to these introduced diseases because they lack resistance. If an infection like coronavirus arrived in a small, isolated group, it would be passed around the whole tribe rapidly and very few people would be spared. A particularly concerning effect of this kind of infection potentially overwhelming a whole community, would be that no one would be able to hunt or collect food, and even if they did, there would be no one to prepare it. Consequently, as well as being ill, individuals would have no one to look after them or feed them, with major effects on the ability of the group to continue to survive without outside help (which brings another set of challenges).

N: In your opinion, what the measures regarding the protection of these groups should be at this moment?

J. M.: For uncontacted tribes, it’s even more vital than before that their territories are protected and absolutely no attempt to contact them is made. For those in contact, we should be taking measures to ensure these tribes are properly informed about the spread of coronavirus and that healthcare for them is prioritized, particularly for groups that may be specially vulnerable; this includes many recently-contacted groups, and others whose communities have been ravaged by long-standing social deprivation and neglect, as is the case in many Western countries.

N: Are you aware of any specific situations in some countries that merit to be highlighted as the crisis looms? Both in terms of good practices or in terms of specially worrying, threatening situations.

J. M.: Ethnos360 (formerly known as the NTM, or New Tribes Mission), the US-based fundamentalist missionary organization, have been attempting to contact uncontacted tribes in Brazil’s Javari Valley – they have just crowd-sourced a helicopter with which to make this easier. They are emboldened by [Brazilian President Jair] Bolsonaro’s appointment of Ricardo Lopes Dias, a former evangelical missionary and member of the NTM himself, as the head of the Uncontacted Tribes Department at FUNAI, the Indigenous Affairs Agency. We are particularly worried about the forced contact of these tribes by missionary organizations.

N: Are you launching any specific campaign in support of Indigenous peoples specially targeting the problems arising from the coronavirus crisis? Or if you are not, are you aware of other organizations / groups doing that, even if they are local?

J. M.: Survival will continue to stand steadfast in solidarity and partnership with tribal peoples, who, although often numerically small and without political voice, remain incredibly resilient and able to maintain their unique identity in the face of immense odds. We have witnessed their strength time and time again. We will continue to call on our supporters to act on our emails, website and social media requests regarding our campaigns and especially in our fight for uncontacted tribes (

Elsewhere, much important work is being done to support indigenous and First Nations communities in response to the coronavirus outbreak, such as with NACCHO (National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation) in Australia, the APIB (Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples Organization), the Navajo Nation in the US and many other groups in Canada and around the world.