On a choppy phone call to the remote Nicobar archipelago, I told indigenous leader Ayesha Majid that my friends in Delhi are falling like flies. A terrible second wave of COVID-19 ravaged India; Crematoria ran out of wood and cemeteries ran out of space. “Brother how did that happen?” she asked incredulously.
Earlier this year, COVID resurfaced with a vengeance in India. In May, the country contributed more than half of the daily reported COVID cases worldwide for a week. COVID deaths in urban India are now falling, but people in rural India have died in droves.
In the second wave, however, the almost 24,000 indigenous Nicobarese who live on 11 tiny islands in the Bay of Bengal have not yet registered a single infection. Not only do these indigenous peoples live on the Nicobar Archipelago, but also more than 13,000 officials, defense forces and settlers from mainland India. At the start of the pandemic, they thoughtlessly brought the virus to this remote outpost by traveling there from the adjacent Andaman Archipelago.
But despite initial panic, past trauma from a devastating earthquake and tsunami, illiteracy, poverty, lack of rudimentary facilities and remoteness of clinics and hospitals (seriously ill Nicobarese usually have to travel to a hospital in the Andaman Islands, a journey of up to 30 hours on the Seeweg), this remote community has managed to protect itself from the pandemic. Experience shows that top-down policies that ignore regional and cultural values do more harm than good – while their bottom-up approach to self-protection teaches important lessons for other vulnerable communities around the world.
On March 24, 2020, the Indian Prime Minister ordered an abrupt 21-day nationwide lockdown from the coronavirus that left over 1.38 billion people locked in their homes. Overnight, millions of poor Indians – migrant workers, day laborers, smallholders, homeless people and members of oppressed castes and tribes – found themselves in an extremely precarious situation. The lockdown was finally extended to 68 days in phases. As one of the strictest in the world, it has triggered a human tragedy, fueled mass migrations and forced 75 million people below the poverty line.
The day after the announcement, several Nicobarese leaders gathered nervously on Kamorta Island, a tiny patch of land in the vast eastern Indian Ocean. As Majid, the chairman of one of the tribal councils, explained the situation, memories of a past trauma began to haunt the gathering. In December 2004, a deadly tsunami and subsequent humanitarian aid devastated Nicobarese society. Many indigenous leaders began to fear that a similar calamity was looming over their community again.
In this remote tribal reserve, where concepts such as pandemics were completely alien, the abrupt lockdown created a novel crisis. When the local government ordered the Nicobarese not to leave their homes, many did not understand why they were suddenly being prevented from fishing, hunting and tending coconut plantations – activities essential to their survival. Police told them there was a deadly virus floating around and causing indiscriminate victims around the world; and that even the most progressive and resourceful governments had failed to suppress them. Social distancing, self-isolation and wearing masks are the only protective measures against the virus, the Nicobarese learned. But such measures were alien to their worldview. The indigenous peoples have a strong sense of community, live in large multigenerational families and share their resources generously.
Worse still, traumatic memories of the tsunami resurfaced, paralyzing the Nicobarese and plunging them into a state of panic. In 2004, towering waves had devastated the Nicobar Islands in the blink of an eye, wiping out 3,449 lives according to official figures (and 10,000 or about a third of the Nicobaric community according to independent researchers’ estimates). The survivors were so traumatized that they could not bear the view of the sea for months. The Nicobarese perceived COVID as a similar, imminent disaster. As memories of past trauma resurrected, her mental health suffered. Many had to worry that the virus was lurking in their tropical forests, sneaking around their beaches, or secretly waiting to catch them in front of their homes. The age of man, some thought, was finally over. Many believed they would surely die.
At this critical point, Majid convinced the village chiefs of the central Nicobar Islands to launch a coherent COVID-19 response to support their wavering community. They relied on both tradition and science. They advised the panicked people, patiently responded to their endless questions, and shattered several myths. A group of women began sewing masks for distribution to the Nicobarese as well as local civil and defense personnel. The tribal councils set up a special quarantine facility, simplified and disseminated important information about the coronavirus in Nicobarese and appealed to the indigenous peoples to practice self-regulated isolation, to wash their hands frequently and especially take care of the elderly. The councils also set up numerous makeshift grocery stores in the villages to prevent risky trips to larger markets, and dispatched teams of volunteers to prohibit the movement of people in and out of the villages.
While the emotional support instantly boosted community morale, the spread of scientific knowledge about the virus prepared islanders to fight off contagion. After the tsunami, the traditional livelihood of the Nicobarese was eroded, and many families now live in precarious conditions. The sudden lockdown made their predicament worse. Lifestyle changes since the tsunami have also brought about previously unknown diseases such as diabetes, making indigenous peoples even more susceptible to serious illnesses if infected. So instead of taking a unified approach, the tribal councils focused on the marginalized people and dealt with their complex vulnerabilities. For example, they made a list of families in need and provided them with essential goods. This help was a lifeline for many; As the volunteers stretched out to distant villages, they found that several households were running out of supplies. “They didn’t have anything to eat. Many could not contact anyone because they did not have a mobile phone or television to receive or exchange the information. They were so scared that they didn’t know what to do, ”says Majid.
In India, coronavirus cases increased despite the lockdown, but thanks to the seclusion of the Nicobar Islands, indigenous peoples were temporarily safe in their villages. However, when travel restrictions to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were relaxed in May 2020, thousands of residents who had been bogged down on mainland India returned, several of whom carried the virus. Tribal councils were alarmed: In a tightly knit traditional society where people live in multigenerational homes, a single case of coronavirus was severe enough to devastate the indigenous community.
Over the past five centuries, alien germs and epidemics spread by European colonizers have wiped out numerous indigenous societies around the world. The tragic fate of the neighboring Great Andamanese, the imported epidemics in the 19th century. As a historically isolated community, the Nicobarese are very susceptible to extraterrestrial diseases, a vulnerability made worse by the inadequate public health system. Hence, maintaining isolation – a natural protection that the Nicobarese enjoyed against infection – was critical to their survival
The tribal councils began lobbying the local government and advocating restrictions on passenger traffic to the Nicobar Islands. Even so, the government did not ban travel to the islands until after the coronavirus infected people in the northern and southern Nicobar Islands, which are home to significant numbers of mainland residents. Fortunately, everyone survived, and since the infected and their families diligently followed the COVID protocols, the disease did not spread. The tribal councils made sure the Nicobarese were watching over one another and promptly reporting any symptoms of COVID to their leaders.
In this way, the Nicobarese managed to contain the spread of the first wave of the pandemic and seem to have escaped the second. Now that the Indian government has launched a COVID-19 vaccination campaign in the archipelago, tribal leaders are once again playing a vital role in dispelling vaccination myths. Majid leads by example and encourages her community to fearlessly receive the injection.
The Nicobarese Response offers some important lessons for effective management of the pandemic. The indigenous peoples navigated the crisis successfully because their leaders acted quickly, collectively, and selflessly; embraced the strengths of tradition and science; democratic decision-making practiced; Created space for active community participation; stressed accountability, integrity and transparency; Ensuring equal participation of women; and prioritized the needs of vulnerable and marginalized people.
Worldwide, the poor, vulnerable and marginalized parts of society are disproportionately affected by the pandemic. However, a closer look also reveals that several indigenous communities are fighting a courageous fight against the pandemic and are using their community ties to protect themselves effectively. It is time to learn from the unique worldviews and just and inclusive responses of such indigenous communities to the pandemic.
This is an opinion and analysis article; the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American