The Impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous Communities in Guatemala

Guatemala’s healthcare system is not fit to cope with Coronavirus’s spread in Indigenous areas. According to the OHCHR, COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting Indigenous people, highlighting underlying structural inequalities and discrimination. A doctor in the Guatemalan department of Alta Verapaz said in regular conditions, their healthcare system in rural areas is ‘appalling’. In the pandemic, it is far worse. 46% of the Guatemalan population lives in rural communities. The Indigenous Xinca, Garifuna and 22 different Maya groups make up most of these residents.

Indigenous groups have suffered discrimination for decades. Over 80% of the victims of human rights cruelties throughout the country’s internal armed conflict of 36 years were Indigenous. Guatemala’s Indigenous populations continue to face a disproportionate amount of poverty. In 2014, 79.2% of Indigenous Guatemalans suffered from poverty, as opposed to 46.6% of non-Indigenous Guatemalans.

For Indigenous people, health rights were already at risk even prior to the pandemic. Indigenous communities are usually situated in remote areas, often with scarce or no access to healthcare services. The OHCHR report states, ‘Many live a communal way of life, highly exposing them to the danger of COVID-19.’ Indigenous people are especially vulnerable to pandemics, as they have low herd immunity and resistance to diseases. Malaria and dengue fever have devastated Indigenous populations for decades, and many even have lower immunity to the common cold. Indigenous women, especially, bear the burden of providing food and giving care to sick members of their community, putting them at higher risk. Additionally, lockdown means indigenous women face an increased risk of gender-based violence. Many aid agencies and referral pathways are inaccessible or unavailable in Indigenous languages.

Authorities are sharing information concerning how to hand-wash and social distance in Indigenous languages on radio and TV. Lucrecia Hernandez Mack (health minister from 2016–17 and a present congressional representative of the centrist Semilla party) told Al Jazeera that the government, ‘have not taken sufficient necessary measures to attend the Indigenous populations that are more dispersed outside urban centres.’ He also claims the country needs around 5,000 health centres to reach people’s needs, but they currently have 1,500. Areas that have a greater population of Indigenous people have fewer health services. The Guatemalan government has been spending more per capita on medical services in largely non-Indigenous departments than departments with a majority of Indigenous people. Furthermore, doctors and medical centres don’t have the necessary medicine and may have to reuse disposable equipment.

Some small-scale, hopeful news, however, is that Indigenous women in Guatemala are making face masks for their communities. Traditional midwives are also helping keep women and babies safe. The OHCR has partnered with Indigenous communities in Guatemala to provide a platform where Indigenous-produced vegetables can be exchanged.

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Written by me

Originally published at on July 16, 2020.

18-year-old wanting to make an impact on the world 📍IN. ZA. UK.