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Indigenous Peoples

India, coronavirus threatens the survival of the Great Andamanese tribe

The pandemic threatens some of the world’s most endangered indigenous peoples, such as the Great Andamanese of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India.

At least ten members of the Great Andamanese tribe in the Indian archipelago of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have tested positive for Covid-19, raising fears regarding the indigenous group’s very survival as its population is limited to just over 50 people. The news came to light when six members of the tribe who travelled to the archipelago’s capital Port Blair on South Andaman Island for government jobs tested positive.

Members of the Great Andamanese tribeMembers of the Great Andamanese tribe
Members of the Great Andamanese tribe © Anvita Abbi/Survival

Health officials were sent to the archipelago last week, specifically to Strait Island, home to all 53 remaining members of the tribe. “The team tested 37 samples and four more members of the Great Andamanese tribe were found to be positive,” says Avijit Ray, a senior health officer in charge of disease management, adding that they had been admitted to hospital. “Over the last few months, every person who has been travelling to these islands, particularly the restricted travel areas, has been tested, but it seems that someone carrying the virus must have gone undetected,” he told the Guardian.

Survival claims eleven have been infected

Sophie Grig, a researcher with Survival International, an organisation that campaigns for the rights of indigenous, tribal and uncontacted peoples, claims that the number of members infected with the coronavirus is higher. “We have so far confirmed from local sources that around eleven people have tested positive for Covid-19. The affected also include a 15-year-old boy”.

Members of the Great Andamanese tribeMembers of the Great Andamanese tribe
A little over 50 Great Andamanese tribe members remain © Anvita Abbi/Survival

“My local contacts shared the information about those infected, including the minor son of Licho, the last speaker of the Andamanese Sare language who died earlier this year because of multiple health ailments,” says Grig, who is based in London but has visited the islands many times. “The local authorities have been tight-lipped and not very keen to speak about it,” she adds, referring to secretiveness around the pandemic reaching the remote area.

“We’re aware of the devastating impact of epidemics that have decimated the people (of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands). The Andaman authorities must act urgently to prevent the virus reaching more Great Andamanese and other tribes”.

Inhabitants of the Andaman Island in India in 1926
Inhabitants of the Andaman Islands, circa 1926 © General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Just over 50 Great Andamanese

The Great Andamanese, as they’re known collectively, were originally ten distinct tribes, including the Jeru, Bea, Bo, Khora and Pucikwar, each with its own language and a population between 200 and 700 people. When British settlers arrived in 1858, their numbers stood at 5,000 but hundreds lost their lives defending their territories and as a result of devastating epidemics of measles, influenza and syphilis.

The Indian government relocated the surviving tribal members to the tiny Strait Island in 1970, where they’ve lived since depending on the authorities for food, shelter and clothing, with the population suffering from alcohol abuse and tuberculosis. At present there are just 53 Great Andamanese left, according to Survival International.

A member of the uncontacted Sentinelese tribe
A member of the Sentinelese tribe firing arrows at a helicopter © Indian Coastguard/Survival

Endangered tribes at risk

The spread of SARS-CoV-2 among the group has also raised concerns for other tribes on the Andaman Islands, including the Jarawa and uncontacted Sentinelese. Earlier this month, it was reported that five welfare staff working with the Jarawa tested positive for Covid-19, even though the Andaman authorities have sought to protect the tribe by restricting movement on the road that illegally cuts through its territory, as well as informing them of the virus’ dangers. In addition, poachers who enter the forest to steal the animals the tribe relies on risk causing the spread of the virus. In fact, eight fishermen were arrested for illegally entering the Jarawa’s territory.

On their part, the Sentinelese have historically rejected contact with the outside world. In 2018, a 26-year-old American missionary seeking to convert the nomadic hunter-gatherer tribe was killed after he secretly visited North Sentinel Island, where they live. His body was never retrieved. Grig points out that the only way to save them is through isolation. “The waters around North Sentinel must be properly policed and no outsiders should enter the territories of any of the Andaman tribes without their consent”.

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