Just over a week ago, US-born missionary John Allen Chau was killed with bow and arrows by an isolated community of hunter-gatherer people living on North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal. While naively well-intentioned, his tragically misguided attempts to “make contact” with the Sentinelese and preach Christianity sparked a fair amount of uproar and raised a number of issues concerning remote tribal groups.
Mary Ho, international executive leader of All Nations, the Christian missionary agency that supported Chau, has recently spoken out about his death and defended his fateful decision to visit the island.
In an interview with Christianity Today, she argues that Chau was not a risk to the tribe. She even justified his trip by saying: “We are talking about a different time here, we’re talking about a time right now when there is modern medicine, when there are antibiotics.”
However, indigenous rights groups and other experts aren’t too pleased about the comments.
“This displays an extraordinary level of ignorance, which highlights why it’s so dangerous for such people to be anywhere near uncontacted tribes,” Stephen Corry, Director of Survival International, said in a statement.
“The idea that widespread deaths amongst newly contacted tribes is a matter of past history is easy to disprove,” he added. “There are many cases in the last few decades where this has been recorded, especially in Brazil and Peru. For example, the Nahua, Peru, suffered over 50% of deaths in the 1980s following contact.”
Chau, it’s claimed by Ho, was medically trained. However, he was not a medical doctor. He had a degree in health and sports medicine, as well as some training in emergency medicine.
Ho said that Chau put a surprising amount of preparation into his fateful journey to North Sentinel Island. Before he set off, he reportedly quarantined himself for “many days” in an attempt to ensure he was not riddled in pathogens they would not be immune against. However, it’s recommended that an absolute minimum of a week’s quarantine is required before a contact expedition. Furthermore, his efforts to quarantine himself would have been null-and-void after he got to the boat with the fisherman who took him near to the island.
She goes on to say that Chau “attempted to get 13 types of immunization” to the tribe. In response to this, Corry said: “We have no idea what this means. In any case, there is no immunization available against the common cold, which has been one of the main problems with uncontacted peoples.
“The initial viral infection (against which antibiotics are useless) commonly leads to secondary infections which prove deadly.”
The lesson, it seems, is quite clear: unless actively welcomed, leave remote tribal groups alone, for your benefit and, perhaps most importantly, theirs.