Covid-19 Has Hit An Isolated Tribe Living In The Indian Ocean

A group of people part of the Great Andamanese tribe. Anvita Abbi/Survival

Covid-19 has hit an isolated tribe living in the Indian Ocean. Survival International, an indigenous human rights group, has reported that at least 11 members of the Great Andamanese tribe in the Andaman Islands have tested positive for Covid-19.

"Our sources on the islands have now confirmed that 11 Great Andamanese have tested positive for Covid-19, out of a population of just over 50. Three have since recovered and 8 are still in the hospital,” Sophie Grig, a senior researcher at Survival, said in a statement given to IFLScience on Friday.

“It is devastating news,” they added. 

The Great Andamanese are a tribe that lives on the Andaman Islands, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean near the southwest off the coast of Myanmar. The Andaman Islands, a collection of nearly 600 islands that are part of India and Myanmar, have had a total of almost 3,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases and over 40 related deaths.

This group of indigenous people was originally made up of 10 distinct tribes, but they are now collectively known as the Great Andamanese. When the British occupied the islands in the mid-19th century, they brought along with them a range of new diseases to the islands, including measles, influenza, and syphilis. There were once over 5,000 people part of this collective tribe in the 19th century, but now there are just 50 survivors. 

As history has shown, isolated tribes have little or no immunity to the common diseases of industrialized societies. Although Covid-19 is a novel disease, it’s feared they may also be more vulnerable to the disease. Alcohol abuse and tuberculosis are also now common in the community, which could make them even more susceptible.

“The Great Andamanese have already been decimated by diseases to which they had no immunity, introduced by British colonizers in the 1850s,” added Grig. “Like many tribes, they suffered catastrophic losses on first contact with outsiders – from a population of 5,000 members of ten different tribes in the 1850s to only 19 individuals just over a century later. It’s vital that all efforts are made to stop the virus spreading to other Great Andamanese and to protect the territories of the other tribes in the Andamans, to stop them from being infected too.”

Meanwhile, fears are growing about whether the virus will make its way toward the uncontacted tribes that also live among the Andaman Islands, such as the Sentinelese. Although the Sentinelese have had no contact with the wider world since the 1990s, they are at risk of coming into contact with poachers illegally fishing and diving for lobster.

Over in South America, a number of indigenous tribes have been struck down by Covid-19. A 15-year-old boy from Brazil's indigenous Yanomami group became the first confirmed Covid-19 death among an indigenous tribe back in April. Just this past month, a small group of uncontacted tribal people reportedly entered another indigenous community in Brazil’s western Amazon region. Given that this community has some contact with wider society, it was feared the uncontacted tribal people had put themselves at risk of catching Covid-19.

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