Russia's indigenous peoples are in the crosshairs of COVID-19

Khanty children with reindeer in the Numto Nature Preserve, Khanty-Manti Autonomous Okrug, Russia, 2006. Photo: Irina Kazanskaya / Flickr (CC-BY 2.0)

In recent weeks, COVID-19 cases in Russia have surged. On October 21, Russian officials announced a record daily death toll of 317, but ruled out a strict lockdown.

The pandemic has laid bare and exacerbated the inequalities of societies the world over, and Russia is no exception. Now activists have raised concern for the fate of 250,000 people belonging to 41 ethnic groups — officially known as the indigenous small-numbered peoples of the North, Siberia, and Far East. They are particularly vulnerable to infection as Russia experiences its “second wave.”

Initially, these regions’ remoteness and sheer size was an advantage it helped them avoid the high traffic which facilitated the disease's quick spread in well-connected metropolitan hubs such as Moscow.

But mining facilities which extract oil, gas, and other raw materials are abundant in lands inhabited by indigenous people. Russia's Arctic and sub-Arctic regions are estimated to contain 90 percent of Russia's natural gas and 10 percent of its oil resources. Because of these areas’ remoteness, workers from all across Russia move to company towns for months at a time.

These seasonal industrial workers are probably the primary cause of infection in these far-flung areas; places such as the Chayanda oilfield in the Sakha region, where over 3,000 workers were diagnosed with COVID-19 in May. Workers then protested over the lack of precautions taken. That same month in Belokamenka, the largest industrial construction site North of the Arctic circle, nearly 1,000 workers caught the disease, and at the Olimpiada gold mine in Krasnoyarsk Krai, over 1,000 workers tested positive.

Outbreaks at industrial settlements may well be the reason why several northern regions with indigenous populations now have some of the highest numbers of current COVID-19 infections. According to the Russian healthcare ministry's latest pandemic update (October 21 at the time of publication), these include the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Krasnoyarsk Krai, the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, and the Murmask Oblast.

Cases like these severely endanger indigenous populations who are under-prepared to counter a pandemic. Many of the specific burdens they face, such as higher than average rates of respiratory illnesses, preceded the pandemic. Furthermore, many rely on traditional livelihoods such as reindeer herding, fishing, and hunting to obtain everyday goods. These ways of life, hence their food security, have come under serious threat from climate change and invasive industrial projects. All these challenges are amplified by poor infrastructure and rudimentary healthcare provision.

A statement recently issued by the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), an organisation made up of Inuit peoples from Alaska, Canada, Greenland and the Russian region of Chukotka, explained the severity of the situation for indigenous communities across the global North:

Overcrowding, food insecurity, lower life expectancy, and a high prevalence of tuberculosis are among the inequities experienced by our people that are linked to poor infrastructure. Many homes lack running water and a flush toilet. Many more depend on aging and deteriorating piped and haul systems. These conditions contribute to severe and multiple illnesses, including invasive pneumococcal disease that are among the highest in the world. Household overcrowding has numerous interrelated adverse impacts, from mental well-being to physical health.

Rates of tuberculosis (TB) in regions inhabited by indigenous peoples are 9.5 percent higher than among the Russian national average and the mortality rate from TB is 450 percent higher. In March Anders Koch, a Danish epidemiologist who specialises in Arctic health, explained to the Arctic Council – an intergovernmental organization of Arctic states – that “crowded housing conditions, poor hygienic standards and lack of running water” create a favourable environment for the spread of TB, leading to it being considered a “social disease that is affected by low social living conditions.” He concluded that living conditions in the Arctic aided the transmission of diseases.

Another statement issued by the ICC on April 21 illustrated how these factors exacerbated the dangers posed by the pandemic:

Inuit across our homelands are working to maintain our traditional culture under very trying circumstances,” said ICC Chair Dalee Sambo Dorough. “We are used to living together in groups. Social distancing is a foreign concept and our past experiences with such an advisory were triggered by devastating illnesses such as tuberculosis (TB), measles, and polio. This is why we must adapt. The issues we have been working to overcome for decades, such as overcrowded housing, lack of proper sewage and potable water systems, high rates of TB, and poor broadband connectivity become starkly evident during a pandemic, and increase the risks of spreading the disease.

The Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) – which was temporarily closed in 2012 but allowed to reopen under newfound political pressure – issued a statement in March about the risks of COVID-19 for indigenous peoples. It primarily stressed that the remoteness of Arctic regions as well as a lack of access to relevant information and public services were of greatest concern.

RAIPON presented a positive picture of a proactive government approach to fighting the pandemic in remote regions. It reported that regional governments in Russia had urged local residents to avoid contact with urban populations and limit travel to urban areas in response to the pandemic. There were also reports of the government increasing funding, as well as “social benefits, delivery of basic-needs products, information spread by satellite phones” provided free of charge to nomadic Nenets peoples who practice reindeer herding in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug.

Another report in July explained that the spread of the virus in the Siberian village Bogorodskoye in Khabarovsk Krai was curbed due to efforts by RAIPON and local authorities. New regulations in May, added another report, also permitted indigenous groups to use larger nets for catching fish in order to ensure food security in the face of supply chain disruption. Another post by RAIPON in April indicated that Russia's Federal Agency for Ethnic Affairs had offered health monitoring, access to public services, distance learning for school children, and provision of food and essential goods including fuel.

However, other sources reported a different reality.

An August 16 report conducted by NGOs Aborigen-Forum, Center for the Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Arctic Consult, and the Batani Foundation indicated that some of those requiring medical attention in Chukotka were located between six and twelve hours away from the nearest hospital. (Aborigen Forum is managed by Dmitry Berezhkov, a former RAIPON leader who now lives in exile in Norway — ed.)

The report also includes the words of an indigenous medical worker from Yamal, Ekaterina Khudi, who described her experience contracting COVID-19 and the great lengths she had to go to in order to receive any treatment.

“I begged doctors to start a course of treatment, but as we received once again the negative tests for COVID-19, they said that we were not subjects for treatment. So they sent me back home even though […] I felt terrible and could only drink water.”

Following June 12, Khudi was required to return to work despite a high fever, a loss of smell and intense body aches. However, after she developed a fever of 39.4 degrees and started to vomit, she was taken to the hospital. There, she underwent tests which showed that she was positive for COVID-19 and that she had lung damage. She expressed concern about her future, as she had developed partial paralysis in her legs and lost some of her speaking ability, adding:

“How long [will] all this shame […] continue in our hospital? All people know what terrible things are going [on] at our hospital but everybody [is] silent.”

In addition to the devastating effects on the health of indigenous communities, the pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity already prevalent due to clearcutting, forest fires and poaching. The Arctic Council reported that the pandemic disrupted “trade and supply relations” which allow indigenous groups to obtain tools, ammunition, fuel and clothing for their households. This was exemplified by the cancellation of the annual “Reindeer Herder Days” event which runs from March to April and serves as a celebration of indigenous traditional livelihoods where nomadic groups are able to stock up on critical food supplies.

Indigenous communities are also subject to quotas that restrict the amount of fish or wild animals they are able to catch without a fishing or hunting permit in order to avoid excessive fishing or poaching. In Khabarovsk Krai, which holds the third-largest population of indigenous people in Russia, there was a limit imposed on the total amount of salmon that the communities were permitted to catch along the Amur River in 2020. Because these groups rely on traditional hunting and fishing to sustain their livelihood, quotas and restrictions create further food insecurity. As one resident of the Yamalo-Nenets Okrug, Nina Yadne, told Ura.News on April 21:

Где гарантия, что люди в тундре не умрут с голоду? Еще неизвестно, какое лето будет, то есть как [будет] с оленями, погодой и болезнями? Хорошо, если вирус туда не дойдет!

Where is the guarantee that people in the tundra won’t die of starvation? Who knows what the summer will bring, given the situation with reindeer, weather, and diseases? We will be fortunate if the virus doesn’t reach [the tundra]!

In April, indigenous groups within the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region further stressed that climate change had aggravated food and gas shortages – as many remote communities rely on rivers to freeze solid in the winter in order to create trade routes – making the pandemic’s effect even more acute.

Consequences like these are exactly why indigenous people continue to struggle against large-scale resource extraction, and have continued to do so during the pandemic.

In June, work began on Kuznetskiy Yuzhny, an open-pit coal mine, in the area of Cheremza, a village in the Kemerovo Oblast largely inhabited by ethnic Shor people. The mine itself is planned to be located two kilometres from the village in southern Siberia, with the railway transporting the coal planned to be just 400 metres away. The development of this project sparked protests by environmental and indigenous activists. One Shor protester Alexey Chispiyakov, explained the situation in a video released on the International Day of Indigenous People:

Наши кристально-чистые горные реки стали черными. Наши огороды покрыты угольной пылью. Наши дома, ежедневно, по несколько раз в день сотрясаются от взрывов. Зверя и рыбы не стало. Дикоросы отравлены отходами разрезов. Мы лишены традиционных источников дохода и это способствует миграции села в город. В городе – мы растворяемся. В городе исчезает наша культура, наш этнос. Шорцев в Кемеровской области осталось всего 4 процента от общего числа жителей и этот процент постоянно снижается.

Our crystal-clean mountain rivers turned black. Our gardens are covered in coal dust. Our homes are shaken by explosions daily. Game and fish are gone. Wild plants are poisoned by coal waste tailings. We are deprived of traditional sources of income and this facilitates migration from the village to the city. In the city, we disappear. Our culture and our ethnic identity disappears in the city. The Shors people make up only 4 percent of residents in Kemerovo Oblast, and this number is constantly going down.

Furthermore, the catastrophic Norilsk oil spill of May 29 has added a renewed urgency to indigenous protesters’ agendas. Valeria, an indigenous woman from the Taimyr peninsula, protested the impact of industrial companies and the oil spill on her community and their traditional way of life. Speaking to 7×7, an independent publication focusing on the Russian regions, she said the following:

Нас становится всё меньше и меньше. Наши исконные земли захватывают промышленные компании. Мы с трудом выживаем на своих территориях. Поэтому мы вышли, чтобы на нас посмотрел весь мир и увидел, в каких условиях мы находимся.

There are fewer and fewer of us. Our native lands are being taken over by industrial companies. We are barely surviving on our own territories. That is why we came out: so the whole world would look at us and see the conditions we find ourselves in.

As people like Valeria and Alexey Chispiyakov see it, their livelihoods and their rights were already under serious threat before the COVID-19 pandemic began. It has merely accelerated the threat of near extinction. One report by RAIPON, released in June, even suggested that the pandemic threatens the existence of indigenous languages which are primarily spoken by community elders – those most at risk of serious COVID-19 infections.

The future prospects of Russia’s indigenous peoples can be understood by applying the words of the Inuit Circumpolar Council in April:

The committee is considering how to bring forward the lessons learned from this pandemic to ensure future preparedness, and identify strategies and priorities to fully close the existing gaps and end the disparities. Since our initial call to governments to close the infrastructure gaps throughout Inuit Nunaat through major new investments in our communities, prioritizing basic infrastructure such as housing, water, and sewer and broadband connections, we are seeing similar demands being echoed by other Indigenous peoples across the globe. Social and economic equity, and supporting population health, and reducing vulnerability to virus[es] and disease is critical. Our concern has only increased because we see the compounded threats to our basic health and well-being manifesting themselves in a very real way.

Russia's indigenous peoples have coped with many threats to their way of life in recent decades. Tragically, it seems likely that for some of them, COVID-19 could prove one struggle too many.

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