Chile’s pandemic response is not geared towards its indigenous communities


While one in ten citizens identify as indigenous, the government’s preparations against coronavirus seem to largely ignore them.

Across Latin America, indigenous communities are cutting off their communities from the outside world, worried about protecting their elders, the keepers of their traditional knowledge. Chile is no different. Among its 10 indigenous groups, which account of 12.8% of the population, the feeling is that the government has mostly left them to fend for themselves.

While the Chilean government has recommended that its citizens stay home and quarantine themselves, this directive ignores the reality of rural indigenous people who are impoverished and don’t have the luxury of isolating themselves indoors. A survey from 2017 indicates that 30% of the native population lives in conditions of multidimensional poverty which has an impact on their health, education and living standards.

For these people to be asked to follow the same guidelines as those given to the Euro-descendant urban populations is futile. In La Araucanía, home to the majority of the Mapuche population, the virus arrived along with summer holiday goers. Here, in the underdeveloped and impoverished territory, where ties run deep and everyone knows everyone else, the virus soon began to take hold. The communities are big on solidarity and hugs and kisses are customary, which created the perfect situation for the spread.

With the onset of winter, there is fear that the pollution caused by cheap firewood for heating homes would heighten the risk of dying from COVID 19.The country has more 300,000 confirmed cases and nearly 6,500 deaths. However, the extent of the spread among indigenous communities hasn’t been determined because the government hasn’t been collecting identity information adequately.

The impact on the community, however, has been brutal. The lockdown brought their movement to a complete halt, an existential threat when a large percentage of them hold down informal jobs with daily incomes. The residents were unable to go about their usual activities transporting and selling livestock and pine nuts, impacting household incomes.

The messaging from the government leaves much to be desired. Apart from translating a few documents into native languages, there has been no outreach to assuage their fears and address their concerns. There has been a fund set up to support businesses but the fully digital application has been of little use to these rural communities where internet is patchy and digital skills are limited.

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