Impact on Guyana and Its Indigenous Peoples

COVID-19 Reports on Latin America and the Caribbean: No. 39

Increase of confirmed cases, lack of consistent testing and tracing, economic disruption, illegal mining and national elections have all impacted the entire country from the coast to the hinterlands. In this brief report, we will enumerate some of the most salient events affecting the current pandemic situation in Guyana. We will also highlight several of the specific challenges and issues affecting the nation’s indigenous population.

Source: Amerindian Peoples Association

COVID-19 Stats

The Ministry of Health reported a total of 8,457 confirmed Covid-19 cases from the detection of the first case to 24 February 2021. Of that number, 7,834 persons had recovered, but 431 active cases remain. There were 192 deaths.  

The weekly dashboard of cases posted by the Ministry of Health and reported in the daily newspapers showed that all ten regions of Guyana had confirmed cases in 2020. Just less than one-third of confirmed cases were in the four regions (1, 7, 8 and 9) where the Indigenous Peoples are mainly located, with 2,072 of 6,348 cases recorded by 1 January 2021.

On the coastland where 85 percent of the population live, three public and five private clinics provide COVID-19 testing. The cost of a Covid-19 test is about US $45 at a private clinic. Covid-19 testing is also carried out at the Lethem Public Hospital in Region 9, in the south of the country and bordering Brazil’s Roraima State.

Economy and Elections

A variety of local restrictions were also imposed on in-country travel, including seating on the ubiquitous minibuses, as well as social distancing and use of face masks. Implementation of the restrictions nationwide was variable throughout 2020.

The Guyanese economy has been severely disrupted by Covid 19. Although the government classified the gold mining sector as an essential service in 2020, Covid outbreaks led to a few mining shutdowns initially.  Some of the national protected areas including the Iwokrama Rainforest in the centre of the country were the sites of notable increases of illegal mining activities.

Source: Guyana Civil Aviation Authority

The tourism sector was arguably the hardest hit. Several stakeholders in the industry were disappointed and felt that there was not sufficient direct support from the country’s national government. Since March 2020, tourism entities all over Guyana closed doors and sent home staff. Many of those who remained agreed to pay cuts or no-pay leave. The tourism industry slowly started to re-open from December 2020 with the Guyana Tourism Authority providing voluntary assessments of lodges to provide ‘safe to open’ certification. However, with international travel reduced, many of the tourism entities have designed new marketing packages to entice the domestic market.

Most international air travel was curtailed, except for essential business travel. This allowed the oil companies to fly-in/fly-out their rotating crews to the offshore deep-water Stabroek tract, with mandatory quarantine enforced before workers were moved offshore. The President of ExxonMobil American said that “to date [December 2020], we’ve moved over 6,000 people offshore and not had one single case of COVID-19 offshore, which is truly remarkable”.

National elections were held in Guyana on 2 March 2020 but the transfer of power from one administration to the next was delayed until 2 August 2020. The APNU+AFC government (May 2015 to August 2020) was distracted by electoral matters from December 2019 when a vote of no-confidence passed in the National Assembly and consequently gave only sporadic attention to mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic.

Impact on Indigenous Communities

It is thus likely that the infection rate in the hinterland territories where the Indigenous Peoples form the majority population is under-estimated. Testing sites were identified in each community and mobile teams from the Ministry of Health could be deployed for testing, tracking and tracing if the Village Councils reported rising infection rates. Tracking and tracing are more difficult in the rural areas, however, because of the scattered farming population and logging and mining crews, along with much lower rates of cell phone coverage than on the coast.

Elected Village Councils in Indigenous communities imposed various rules to mitigate the pandemic, including face masking and social distancing. Some villages imposed temporary lockdowns, aided by Ministry of Health monitoring teams. Villages in north-eastern Guyana on travel routes to Suriname were identified as hotspots. Some villagers were opposed to limits on inter- and intra-community movements, expressing the traditional sense of Amerindian autonomy against rules felt to infringe personal liberties.

The government aided some NGO efforts made special efforts to communicate the terrible potency and infectiousness of the coronavirus in culturally appropriate language via radio and social media. Nevertheless, the infection rate in Amerindian communities was three times greater than in the more densely populated coastal areas by the end of 2020. Press comments noted the silence of the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs but most news articles commented favorably on the geographical spread of efforts by the Ministry of Health. The NGO Amerindian Peoples Association (APA) was critical of the government’s insufficient efforts to protect Indigenous communities. The APA was also active in distributing posters about COVID-19 designed specifically for Indigenous communities, and was important in distributing food parcels, supported by a donation from the Government of France.

Source: Amerindian Peoples Association

Indigenous communities such as Surama, Rewa and Yupukari, recognised to have world class community tourism, were very hard hit and are still without significant income from this particular income-generating business.   

By Janette Bulkan and Rachel Thomas-Caesar

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