It was clear, even in the early days of the pandemic, that minorities, indigenous peoples and other marginalized communities were at greater risk of infection and death from COVID-19. This was for a variety of reasons, ranging from limited access to health care and a higher prevalence of pre-existing illnesses to poverty and the concentration of many members in jobs and livelihoods that were hazardous or insecure.
Indeed, across the world, many frontline occupations such as delivery services, public transport and medical work are undertaken by members of these communities, working continuously throughout the first lockdowns when the rest of the population were being urged to stay at home for their own safety.
Subsequently, however, it has become apparent that the impacts of the crisis have extended far beyond the immediate health outcomes, with everything from employment and education to housing and mental well-being disrupted. In these areas, too, minorities and indigenous peoples have frequently borne a disproportionate burden, exacerbated in many countries by poorly implemented or discriminatory government policies. While the shared crisis of COVID-19 could have created momentum for solidarity and ceasefires, in reality persecution and conflict often appear to have escalated in the wake of the virus.
More fundamentally, however, much of the inequity and discrimination brought to the surface by the pandemic was present long before the outbreak – and is likely to remain in place without transformative societal change. As countries navigate the uncertain path towards recovery, it is vital that there is more than simply a return to normality. This painful global emergency also offers an opportunity to achieve lasting change to the systemic racism and injustice that minority and indigenous communities have contended with for generations. Without meaningful action to address these underlying issues, however, the world will continue to be exposed to the threat of further health crises in the years to come. With that in mind, this report outlines 10 key lessons for governments, societies and communities to follow for a fairer and more sustainable post-pandemic future.
1. Universal health
Ensure the right to health for all, including full and equitable access to care, is a priority not only during the pandemic but also a central element in the global recovery: The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on minorities and indigenous peoples has highlighted longstanding health disparities that are likely to remain in place without sustained action to address them.
Though there has been widespread recognition that the burden of COVID-19 has been borne heavily by minorities, indigenous peoples and migrants, the current crisis has simply exacerbated a reality that has often been overlooked – the immense inequities around health provision, nutrition, living conditions and other determinants that have left them more exposed to chronic illness, disease and death. These drivers have simply accelerated during the pandemic, resulting in higher infection and mortality rates among these groups.
While it is vital that testing, treatment and vaccination are rolled out equitably across the world to target those communities most at risk from the virus, efforts should also focus on securing a long-term transformation of public health that ensures that no one is left behind. In the wake of COVID-19, it is impossible to ignore the profound exclusion of many populations from the right to health, and the dangers that this poses not only to the communities directly affected but the world as a whole.
2. Housing and living conditions
Reduce underlying health inequalities through more equitable shelter and service provision for minorities, indigenous peoples and other marginalized communities: The pandemic has laid bare the disproportionate rates of death and disease borne by these groups as a result of inadequate housing and unsanitary conditions.
The spread of COVID-19 has been driven by inequality, in particular the shortfalls in housing and living conditions that typically afflict marginalized groups, including minorities and indigenous peoples. Overcrowding and the absence of basic services, such as clean water and sanitation, have proven to be key factors in the spread of the virus in informal settlements, camps and other contexts.
Even before the pandemic, these environments were exacting a heavy toll on health outcomes for minorities and indigenous peoples, contributing to lower life expectancy and above-average infection rates for communicable diseases such as tuberculosis. Better housing and service provision is therefore critical, not only to protect these groups from COVID-19 but also to boost resilience to other public health threats in future.
3. Environment and land
Promote land rights, environmental protection and access to green space to support resilience and recovery during the pandemic, as well as prevent future crises: While land grabbing and deforestation have increased around the globe, community-led conservation and engagement in the natural world have the potential to improve social and environmental well-being.
The disruption of the pandemic and the restrictions imposed to contain it have enabled even greater impunity for armed groups and militias to attack indigenous and environmental defenders. At the same time, logging, mining and agricultural expansion have accelerated forest clearance across the world, in the process spreading COVID-19 into remote areas and risking the emergence of new zoonotic diseases in future.
This has underlined the importance of securing community land rights for preserving fragile environments from degradation and destruction, particularly in indigenous territories. At the same time, the experience of lockdown and other restrictions has also underlined the importance of equitable access to parks, gardens and green space in towns and cities, especially for marginalized minorities.
Ensure that decent work, labour rights and adequate welfare assistance are a central part of any public health strategy, protecting those whose livelihoods are most at risk: Minorities, indigenous peoples and migrants, working disproportionately in precarious or informal employment, have been among those worst affected by poverty, food insecurity and evictions as a result of job loss or reduced income.
While lockdowns, restrictions on movement and other measures have sometimes been necessary to contain the spread of COVID-19, their economic fallout has proved devastating to communities already contending with social exclusion. For many of those on daily wages, zero-hour contracts or working as waste pickers, street vendors or in other informal occupations, there has been little or no assistance from either governments or employers to help them weather the crisis.
Indeed, in some cases even the limited rights in place before the pandemic have been rolled back, particularly for migrant workers and foreign labourers, who have experienced a rise in arbitrary dismissal and exploitation. The pandemic has therefore again highlighted the urgent necessity of social assistance and protections for all workers, regardless of their sector or migration status – and the cost to public health, through hunger, homelessness and other impacts, when these are not in place.
5. Language and education
Educational initiatives must ensure that all students, including those from minority and indigenous backgrounds, are adequately supported: Lack of computers and other equipment, compounded by language barriers, have widened inequalities and also limited access to essential public health information.
Education has been a prominent casualty of the pandemic, as students have had to adapt rapidly to school closures and the transfer to online classes. For children belonging to minority and indigenous communities, many of whom already faced multiple barriers in accessing education, these difficulties have only intensified – particularly for those with little or no access to a computer or internet connection.
The effects are likely to be especially acute in the learning of minority and indigenous languages, an area that has long been poorly prioritized in many countries. Yet the pandemic has also illustrated the vital importance of multilingual resources. With public information campaigns frequently failing to engage non-majority populations, community activists have mobilized to communicate life-saving guidance to others in their native languages.
6. Surveillance and policing
Governments must employ public health strategies that are participatory and rights-based, not repressive and controlling: In many countries, the pandemic has been used to justify the rollout of discriminatory restrictions that have actively hindered an effective response.
While the pandemic required swift and unprecedented action from governments across the world, some countries saw the rollout of inequitable and discriminatory policies that created further challenges for poor and marginalized groups. In many cases, these actively targeted minorities, indigenous peoples and migrants with disproportionate measures that were not applied to the rest of the population.
Authorities have also cynically used the pandemic as a pretext to crack down on protests and ramp up surveillance of their populations, framing citizens as vectors of the disease to be contained rather than potential victims in need of protection. However, this draconian approach has frequently not only violated fundamental rights but also impacted negatively on public health, in some cases intimidating communities into avoiding testing or treatment for fear of reprisals.
7. Hate speech and misinformation
Address the dissemination of harmful rumours and misinformation linking the spread of COVID-19 to minorities, indigenous peoples and other excluded communities: Right-wing and nationalist groups have sought to exploit the fear and confusion brought on by the pandemic to attack marginalized groups.
Hate speech and misinformation about COVID-19 have spread as quickly as the virus itself, with disastrous and sometimes deadly effects. Extremists have sought to weaponize the pandemic through the promotion of false narratives blaming particular communities for the outbreak, further endangering their security.
Frequently building on old stereotypes and drawing on bad science to justify discrimination, this hate speech has also served to undermine wider public health strategies. These attacks foster division and misinformation at a time when collective action and accurate messaging are more important than ever.
Include a clear conflict prevention component in any global pandemic strategy to prevent a surge in violence: In many countries, the targeting of minorities, indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups has escalated in the midst of the crisis.
Early on there were hopes that, given the overwhelming need for collective action to counter the universal threat posed by the pandemic, it might encourage warring parties to suspend hostilities and even enable shared cooperation between them. Yet in many cases, armed groups and militias have actively exploited the crisis for their own ends – particularly where growing political and economic pressures have further undermined already unstable societies.
Whether orchestrated by governments, paramilitary factions or terrorist organizations, ethnic cleansing, land grabbing and forced displacement have continued throughout the unfolding disaster of COVID-19, frequently targeting minorities, indigenous peoples and migrants. For many communities, this ongoing violence has been as deadly a threat as the pandemic – and, if not effectively contained, could persist long after the virus has been brought under control.
9. Migration and displacement
Ensure that humane migration policies remain at the heart of the pandemic response, in line with international human rights standards and public health protocols: Many countries appear to have used the crisis as a pretext to impose harsher restrictions on refugees and migrants, leaving them even more exposed to the threat of the virus.
Many measures imposed in the wake of COVID-19, such as border closures, mass quarantines and the suspension of asylum claims, have implicitly framed migration as a threat to public health. This approach, while favoured by governments with an established anti-migrant agenda, has placed already vulnerable groups in even greater danger by forcing them to remain in cramped, unsanitary environments such as camps and detention centres.
The subsequent waves of infections among refugee and migrant communities, though often employed by right-wing groups to further stigmatize them, have in fact only reinforced the need for a more progressive approach to migration that favours inclusion and integration over penalization and containment. Ensuring equitable access to health care and other rights, such as education and legal employment, will not only support the management of COVID-19 but also create better social and economic outcomes for refugees and migrants as well as host countries.
10. Identity and well-being
Embrace holistic, locally appropriate pandemic responses that recognize and respect community perspectives, practices and beliefs: Public health strategies should be adapted to the particular contexts of minorities and indigenous peoples to ensure their effectiveness while protecting cultural knowledge, traditional lifestyles and mental health.
The imposition of standardized measures such as lockdowns and border closures has been justified by the need for equitable and coherent public health strategies. Yet in practice, for minorities and indigenous peoples, the impacts of these measures have often been felt unevenly and included many unseen costs to social cohesion, identity and mental health.
When imposed without consultation with marginalized communities, the unintended consequences of impractical regulations (such as restricted movement on nomadic populations) can leave lasting damage to social and economic well-being. On the other hand, when policies are participatory and aligned with the needs and values of these groups, their effectiveness will be greatly improved while the social and psychological burdens are reduced.
Photo: A portrait of a man from the Khomani San of Kalahari community in South Africa. The reduction in tourism due to COVID-19 has impacted the community’s livelihoods. Credit: Tim Wege / Alamy.