When Alien Infects Native: Locking Lives & Livelihoods

After successfully controlling the markets across the world with its products, the Chinese virus, if not the Chinese marketing-product, has been infecting the communities across the world. As per contemporary discussion, the deliberate/accidental/natural Wuhan-origin coronavirus disease 2019 or covid-19 has been infecting almost all countries of the world. This alien virus from China has been gradually entering into the native communities after capturing the urban and metro landscapes of several countries. At the time it looks like, in the entire world, the virus is spreading rapidly and infecting lots of people. As we all witness, the covid-19 has affected most of the leading cities of numerous countries across the world. Now the virus has started entering the poor native communities or the tribal communities, which is of worrisome for most of the state and national governments.

The matter has become global news soon after the death of fifteen year old boy from the Yanimami tribe in the remote Amazon forests in Brazil. Thereafter, several native communities are being reported infected by this alien Chinese virus worldwide; the case of India is not an exception. Be it Bastar of Chhattisgarh or Koraput of Odisha, the virus is exacerbating vulnerabilities among these native communities. As covid-19 infected cases spread across India, the native tribal communities in the remote areas especially in and around hills and forests are compelled to fear worst. As a matter of fact, these communities have been struggling with because of the impact of several so-called development and non-development projects namely industrialization induced deforestation, land encroachment, Maoist movement and among others; the current foreign-origin covid-19 pandemic is yet another threat to their survival.

As per the Report of the Expert Committee on Tribal Health in 2018 titled ‘Tribal Health in India: Bridging the Gap and a Roadmap for the Future”, 104 million tribal people in India are largely concentrated in ten states and in the north-east. Almost 90 percent of the total population of the country lives in rural areas. There are 90 districts or 809 blocks with more than 50 percent tribal population and they account for nearly 45 percent of the scheduled tribe population in the country. Spreading across 705 tribes, these tribal people constitute 8.6 percent of India’s population. These poor native tribal communities are mostly living without basic infrastructure like road connectivity, electricity, hygienic living condition so on and so forth.

The livelihood system among the tribal population is very underprivileged in nature. From a scholastic point of view, the livelihood system in tribal societies can be broadly structured into two categories: nature-community supported livelihood system (NSLS) and state supported livelihood system (SSLS). The nature-community supported livelihood system is based on productive actions and interactions of the individuals/households on the one hand, and the available stock of resources (social, economic/financial, political and natural) in and around the communities on the other. As we know, tribals mostly depend on daily wage labour and forest-based products for their day-to-day livings. The state supported livelihood system, in contrast, is based on various development-induced governmental policies and programmes, which are meant for the welfare of the weaker sections like tribals at grassroots level. This state supported livelihood system is very symbolic. The plight of tribals even after seven decades of India’s independence clearly sounds the concern and commitment of the state-supported livelihood support system for the tribals.

However, keeping in view the severity of covid-19 pandemic and its consequent necessity of ensuring social distancing and preventing the spread of this global pandemic, declaration of lockdown, the only alternative to defeat covid-19, has put the live and livelihood of these tribal people in sorrows and sufferings. The poor native people have become wage-less in nature. There is also the case of reverse migration to their native place those who had gone to other places for jobs prior to covid-19. It is visualized that thousands of migrant workers have been stranded without adequate food and appropriate shelter in urban areas. There are also reports pertaining to starvation among local communities in rural and urban areas. In fact, following the nationwide lockdown and corresponding closure of commercial establishments, it has produced series of joblessness and homelessness particularly among lakhs of migrant workers including tribals.

That apart, weekly market is considered as the heart of economic activities among tribals. It is seen that tribals bring different agricultural and forest produce to this weekly market for sell or exchange to get other essential items. Various studies have observed that these weekly markets in tribal areas are not only considered as the places that execute economic activities but also considered as the places that execute social and cultural performances. However, with strong emphasis on social (physical) distancing to avoid the infection of covid-19, there is immediate shutting down of weekly markets, which have certainly ceased the economic avenues of the local tribal communities.

The live of the individuals also depends on an effective health institution, which is again extremely troublesome in tribal India. As literature suggests, it is found that India’s government health service infrastructure consists of 1,58,417 sub-centres, 25,743 primary health centres and 5,624 community health centres and a total of 25,778 government hospitals apart from 122 railway and 155 ESI hospitals at the end of March 2018 with a cumulative capacity of about 7.5 lakh beds. Most of the centres from this list that are located in tribal areas are almost nonfunctional. As we visualize through different newspapers and magazines from time to time, most of these centres are suffering from financial frustration, physician paucity, and infrastructural impasse. The cascade of covid-19 in tribal communities will be utmost problematic.

It is seen that the poor tribals have started using personal protective equipment (PPE) such as mask made from palm leaves in certain areas in the absence of proper masks. This may be justifiable in the absence of the provision of PPE in these areas. However, one will definitely feel very nervous if covid-19 captures these communities, which is not at all cynical. The poor foundation and functioning of these medical institutions in these areas will definitely put living-life into lifeless once the covid-19 transmits to these community levels. That apart, with the seasonal rise of the temperature and gradual shortage of water in these areas, which we have been observing since several years, the personal health behaviour of the tribals that includes hygiene, sanitation, washing of hands etc. will be very unusual. In fact, lack of clean water will definitely add health pressure among tribals during the pandemic.

No doubt, some tribal local communities have shown their significant level of commitment in abandoning outsiders to their villages in the wake of covid-19. They have also asked their village counterparts not to step out from the village if the movement is not so urgent. This community initiated lockdown strategy at village level is an exemplary in nature, which we hardly find in most of the urban areas. However, I wonder, what will happen to these community level initiatives in safeguarding the communities from the covid-19 once the latter attempts to enter into the domain of the former, which have already started in India.

Therefore, considering the poor state of medical facilities, economic inefficiency and the magnitude of the problem of pandemic, it is high time on the part of the government (both state and centre) agencies as well as civil society organizations to prepare their roadmaps in saving the lives and livelihoods of the tribal local communities. In this context, Anne Nuorgam, the Chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), has very aptly released a statement to its member states in which she has emphatically mentioned that the states need ‘to ensure that indigenous peoples are informed, protected and prioritized during the global covid-19 pandemic’. This message should be practiced in letter and spirit if we want to really see the continuity of this great community, which has been continuing in and around the hills and forests since longtime.

*The author is a development sociologist associated with the Department of Sociology, Central University of Odisha, Koraput.

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