by Samuel Sukhnandan
Even as officials of the Public Health Ministry appealed to hinterland communities to do all they can to prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus (COVID-19), the Amerindian People’s Association (APA), a leading indigenous rights organisation, says there is greater need for inclusivity and education awareness.
On Monday, Public Health Ministry’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Shamdeo Persaud said the 19 new cases that were recorded on Monday all came from Region Nine (Upper Takatu/ Upper Essequibo). Dr. Persaud said figures on Saturday and Sunday show there is a steady rise in the number of coronavirus cases in the hinterland regions.
Dr. Persaud said there is need for more community action and appealed directly to village councilors, gate keepers and prominent members of the communities “to remind those who look up to you to tell them that we can only keep the transmission down if” they stay indoors unless it is absolutely necessary.
But during a zoom conference on Monday, APA’s Governance and Rights Coordinator Laura George said in order for the current challenges to be overcomed, the central and regional government, including the health authorities, would have to work with the district council bodies and Toshaos to include them in their decision making.
George said too often decisions are made by these central or regional bodies without proper consultation with the village leaders and Toshaos. And these very leaders, according to her, are expected to execute their mandate, without hearing from the people on the ground themselves, who are experts on the terrain and who know what manpower and resources they have. She said it is time for a change to this process of not including these key personnel. “We need to go beyond that and to say this is how we work, this is how we involve indigenous peoples. It is respecting their free, prior and informed consent, but inclusion is important at this time even more,” the APA official said in a passionate plea during the live meeting.
APA’s Executive Director Jean La Rose said her organisation had penned a four-page letter detailing the challenges in the hinterland villages and making a number of recommendations to the National COVID-19 Task Force. One of the recommendations before the outbreak in Santa Rosa was for the task force to set up a mobile testing unit in the village. That did not happen until the rise in cases, according to La Rose who also noted that to date the APA is yet to receive a response from the National COVID-19 Task Force.
The award-winning indigenous rights activist told the meeting that the APA has instead moved to do its own work to reach out to these communities.
“Rather than to wait on a task force or anyone else, we as an organisation have an opportunity to do things and we have experience working with communities with their support and advice. Sitting and waiting on the task force was not the best idea, so we moved to do what we can,” she explained.
So far, the APA has distributed supplies worth $29.5 million with assistance from donor partners to many hinterland villages. Communities in six regions have benefited from Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), food hampers and sanitary supplies.
Despite these efforts, Ms. La Rose said there is still a lot more to be done in hinterland regions, as there have been widespread implications. “There are many impacts and I do not think we have arrived at a full assessment of the impact… immediately it would be on health of course, the capacity of various communities to deal with the health issues for instance.” She said too that some communities did not even have any supplies at the start of the pandemic, which is still the case for many others.
The APA official stressed the need for greater education awareness in hinterland villages, as many people continue to doubt that COVID-19 exists. “Awareness is one of the key things that should take place… information is needed as much as possible and in all the indigenous languages,” she said while noting that the political situation in Guyana is also contributing to the disbelief in these far-flung villages.
The APA is also calling for more testing and screening to be done in these hinterland villages, particularly in those that share a close distance to bordering countries like Brazil.