Adapting to new crises: Meeting the challenge of Covid-19

By Rasha Al Saba

From conflict to climate change, MRG has repeatedly reoriented its work in the face of new crises to ensure that minorities and indigenous peoples – frequently the most affected by these challenges – are not forgotten. Most recently, in the wake of the outbreak of Covid-19 at the end of 2019, we have focused much of our efforts on understanding the implications for the most marginalized populations across the world. From the early stages of the pandemic, it was clear to us that minorities and indigenous peoples would likely be disproportionately affected.

Today there are millions of cases of Covid-19 globally, with thousands of new cases being confirmed every day. The Covid-19 pandemic is, at root, a public health emergency, driven by its ready transmission and ability to cause severe illness and death. But while its ability to overwhelm the best of health systems has already been demonstrated, its farreaching social, economic and political consequences are still unfolding with minorities and indigenous peoples among the worst affected.

Mounting evidence shows that minorities are at greater risk of contracting the virus for a range of reasons – disproportionate employment in high-risk sectors, concentration in overcrowded housing, and higher mortality rates post infection often due to poorer health status and limited access to medical care. While less data was initially available concerning the impact of the pandemic on indigenous communities, emerging evidence suggests that the implications have been ‘disproportionately devastating’.

The disproportionate impact of the virus has also extended to minority and indigenous communities’ livelihoods and security, access to basic services, education and food with women and people with disabilities within communities further exposed to negative impacts. Fears grow of the implications of the pandemic for minorities and indigenous peoples in the global south, largely undocumented due to a lack of data or reporting.

Covid-19 developed into a crisis of human rights as well as public health, exposing deep inequalities and the fragility of global health and protection systems. Minorities and indigenous peoples face an even more hostile environment, characterized by increasing racism, xenophobia and scapegoating. In addition, the wide ranging containment measures by governments had profoundly discriminatory impacts on the most marginalized in societies visible in the mistreatment, detention and deportation of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in the name of containing the virus.

While lockdown measures aimed to slow viral transmission, their unintended consequences have been far reaching, devastating livelihoods, disrupting schools and closing borders. These impacts, distributed unevenly, brought renewed urgency to the situation of minorities and indigenous peoples worldwide, with many concerned that the pandemic could reverse modest advances in improving social and economic equality.

It is clear that the pandemic has aggravated pre-existing social and economic inequalities for marginalized communities, including minorities and indigenous peoples. With risks of recurrent outbreaks high, it is crucial to support and protect the most vulnerable to effectively control the virus. Efforts to examine the disproportionate impact of the virus on racial and ethnic minorities must be scaled up and adopted widely to include religious, linguistic and other aspects of social identity. To understand what is behind the greater vulnerability of some groups to Covid-19, policy makers and scientists must focus more attention on the social determinants of health and explore how these intersect with ethnicity, race, religion, language and disability. Lessons from this pandemic should be learned, and opportunities for possible synergies with human rights and development agendas must be taken. To reverse inequalities and discrimination brought on by the pandemic, it is important to prioritize measures to guarantee social and economic rights, while delivering on the commitment of ‘leave no one behind’. In immediate terms, this should include issues relating directly to the pandemic. For example, governments should ensure that vaccines, when developed, will be delivered on the basis of vulnerability to exposure, including due to socio-economic or health roles, rather than on the ability to pay or membership of a dominant ethnic, religious or linguistic group.

However, the broader synergies between the immediate crisis response lie with the longer-term realization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially those associated with health, hunger poverty and adequate shelter. Efforts should be intensified to guarantee the right to health and the achievement of SDG 3, including the targets of universal health coverage for all countries, while addressing the national and local barriers that minorities and indigenous peoples, as well as refugees, migrants and people with disabilities, experience when accessing health care. Ultimately, the most fundamental step to address the current crisis and strengthen resilience for future public health challenges is to push for a more inclusive and equitable development landscape for all.

Within days of the announcement of the pandemic in March 2020, MRG reached out to our donors to ask whether we could shift our work to ensure that it remained relevant during the pandemic. Most donors agreed very swiftly and many also agreed that we could include direct aid to affected minority and indigenous communities. This allowed us to reach out to our partner organizations to identify the key supplies that their communities needed. We were then able to support them in providing for excluded communities with a range of Covid-19 related facilities and supplies, from handwashing stations and personal protective equipment to mattresses in remote quarantine centres, as well as cleaning and disinfectant products. We also enabled public health broadcasts on community radio stations in local languages, translation of health guidelines on leaflets and the recording of songs in local languages containing key messages. In a few instances where we had evidence that food distribution was skipping or discriminating against minority settlements and communities, we even provided some food aid or cash for food support for extremely vulnerable households.

To date, MRG has also undertaken a range of research on the social, economic and health impacts of Covid19 on minority and indigenous populations. This includes an extended briefing that examines the different facets of the minority and indigenous experience of the pandemic, such as the factors that render some communities more vulnerable to the spread of the virus, and the particular dynamics of its dissemination in conflict and fragile settings. It also examines the need for better data disaggregation to highlight inequalities, the impact of restrictions on livelihoods and incomes as well as the implementation of discriminatory containment measures for minorities, indigenous peoples and other groups including migrants and refugees.

Building on this, we are currently working with partner organizations in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, to undertake field studies on the specific impacts of the pandemic on these communities. We have recently begun a collaboration with the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery to explore how the vulnerability of minorities and indigenous peoples to exploitation is increasing. We will also focus our 2021 Minority and Indigenous Trends report on Covid-19. Our hope is that, by combining extensive research and advocacy with local community-led programmes, we can help ensure that these groups do not become invisible victims of the pandemic.

More information on MRG’s research on Covid-19 is available in the briefing Inequality and the impact of Covid-19: How discrimination is shaping the experiences of minorities and indigenous peoples during the pandemic.

Top photo: A Yanomami child holds a face mask in Brazil / Adriano Machado/Reuters | In-text photo: Ethiopian domestic workers wearing masks sit together with their belongings in front of the Ethiopian consulate in Hazmiyeh, Lebanon / Reuters/Mohamed Azakir