Underplayed Voices: The invisibilization of indigenous peoples in states’ pandemic responses

This op-ed is part of AASYP’s Digital Dialogues 2021, which is a programme that aims to provide a platform and forum for future leaders from across the region to contribute to the policymaking and diplomacy sphere by engaging in issues relating to Gender and Diversity, Green Recovery, and Emerging Economies.

Indigenous peoples comprise 5 per cent of the global population, but they account for 15 per cent of those living in extreme poverty. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has acted as  a microscope on society. It exposed new gaps in society and further magnified inequalities that we always knew were there, but remain unaddressed. The inability of states to provide decent health care speaks volumes about the structural vulnerabilities of indigenous peoples: displacement and dispossession, food insecurity, lack of access to basic social services, disenfranchisement in political participation—all on top of discrimination, development aggression, and looming infection from COVID-19.

Indigenous Peoples and Covid-19

Pre-pandemic, indigenous peoples all over the world have been battling with threats to their well-being. These include limited access to health care, poor nutrition, contamination of natural resources found within their territories, restricted access to resources necessary for maintaining well-being, among others. Likewise, incidences of violence, incarceration, and suicide were found to be higher among indigenous peoples in many countries. The life expectancy of indigenous peoples was also found to be up to 20 years lower than their non-indigenous counterparts. These alone are alarming issues, which are now compounded by the pandemic.

Despite the gains in the international legal arena, as well as the penning of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), there remains a gap between policy and practice. Though more inclusive than its forerunner (the Millennium Development Goals), the SDGs dedicate no specific goal to indigenous communities. This international invisibilization of indigenous peoples is seen in individual domestic policies of states, too. Some argue that notwithstanding the lack of express goals on indigenous peoples, they are included in several targets of the SDGs. However, it is pertinent to note that the struggle of indigenous peoples for international recognition has been in existence for as long as the term “indigenous peoples” was used to refer to said peoples. It is not a new phenomenon. Then, when set against the backdrop of their struggle, the invisibilization of indigenous peopless in state policies is an unhealed wound.

As earlier argued, the pandemic highlighted the divide between and among nations and between and among peoples within the state. Those who have been already segregated and are on the losing end of the stick have been further trampled upon. Aside from the existing issues of indigenous peoples, they have had to face new threats to their life the past few years.

The ASEAN-Australia context

COVID-19 means a lot of things for indigenous peoples and cultural minorities. For those in Myanmar, COVID-19 has been an escalator of human rights abuses. For those in Indonesia, it has been an accelerator of land-grabbing and deforestation of indigenous territories. In Australia, it has biosecurity implications, particularly on policing indigenous communities. Moreover, on a parallel plane, First Nations face health and social gaps, resulting from systemic oppression. This is rooted in their historical dispossession of lands by white settler colonialism.

In other states like the Philippines, the pandemic worsened long-standing policies of marginalization. Take, for example, the national vaccination program against COVID-19. Nowhere are indigenous peoples identified in the priority list of vulnerable groups (i.e. older persons, persons with co-morbidities, medical frontliners, poor population). Instead, they are lumped with the general population (which is lowest in terms of prioritization). Some get vaccinated under other priority categories. The bottom line is, indigenous peoples are at the nethermost of, if not missing from, national policies.

States are found wanting in terms of pandemic responses that specifically cater to the needs of indigenous peoples. This is similarly evident in the numerous concerted efforts of civil society organizations (CSOs) all over Southeast Asia to deliver essential health services. These responses fill in the blanks which government has yet to reach.

Intersectionality in addressing policy gaps

Indigenous issues are often lumped with issues of the rest of mainstream society when in fact, they are not the same. Unlike mainstream populations, indigenous peoples have been suffering from structural oppression for generations. Thus, the approach used in addressing their issues must be in accordance with their social circumstances and contexts. To redress the historical injustice and systemic neglect committed against indigenous peoples, there is a need to acknowledge their invisibilization not just in national policy agenda, but also within grassroots discussions. This is best communicated when they are empowered as agents and not mere recipients. Only then can there be balance between the competing interests of the state and the diverse needs of indigenous peoples. 

All in all, what is needed is equitable access to social services. Equity recognizes the intersectionality that affects the experiences of indigenous peoples across all facets of social life: gender, economic status, political status, among others. The only way we can heal this invisibilization is to make indigenous peoples visible not only in policy, but also in our day-to-day discourses.

This article was written by Karminn C.D.Daytec Yangot, edited by Lauren Twine, and reviewed by the AASYP Publications Team.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and in no way represent nor reflect the position of AASYP and members of the AASYP Publications Team. The AASYP Horizons Blog provides a platform for the free expression of opinions and intellectual discourse.

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