COVID-19 in Russia. The impact on indigenous peoples’ communities. Aborigen-Forum position paper

Aborigen Forum is an informal network of 42 independent experts, activists, leaders, and indigenous organizations from 21 regions, the Russian Arctic, Siberia, and the Far East.

The mission of Aborigen Forum is to protect and realize indigenous peoples’ rights by tracking and analyzing legislation, monitoring the state of land rights, national and international partnerships, and dialogue with authorities at all levels.

Aborigen Forum Secretary Gennady Schukin

Indigenous peoples in Russia

Two-thirds of Russia’s territory are the Arctic, Siberian, and the Far East regions, a home for forty-five indigenous minority peoples, with approximately 280,000 members, which equals roughly 2% of the population of these regions or 0,2% of the entire country. Their traditional livelihood based on fishing, hunting, reindeer husbandry, sea hunting, and gathering. More than two-thirds of them continue to live in rural areas where these activities are indispensable sources of food and income. Due to their traditional livelihoods, most of the Indigenous peoples of the Russian North, especially those who preserve a nomadic way of life, usually need much more territory for subsistence than other populations. Indigenous Peoples in Russia remain one of the poorest parts of the population. Their social and economic development, as well as their life expectancy, is far below the national average.

Indigenous peoples’ health in Russia is far worse than the health of the country’s general population. Social diseases are widespread in the indigenous communities in Russia, including alcoholism and tuberculosis (TB). For example, the TB rate in regions where indigenous peoples live is 9,5% higher than the Russian average, and in some regions like Chukotka autonomous okrug, it is higher twice. The mortality rate from TB, which is 4,5 times higher than the Russian average, is even more eloquent factor of the poor condition of the health system at the remote regions where indigenous peoples live.

The COVID-19 influence on indigenous peoples of the Russian Arctic, Siberia and Far East

The Russian state healthcare system has been restructured during the last 15 years, and a large number of small medical facilities located in rural areas were closed by authorities for “better governance” and “better access to medical service”. The remote villages of the Russian Arctic, Siberia, and the Far East, where most indigenous peoples live, became the most sensitive to the closure of the medical facilities due to the size of the territory, harsh climatic conditions, and the low transport accessibility.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit Russia at the end of March 2020. Russia’s under-funded healthcare system was poorly prepared for a surge in coronavirus cases: protective equipment such as masks and gloves is often lacking, and there are not enough beds and other necessary equipment and medical supplies for intensive-care patients especially in remote rural territories. A lot of medical care workers reported that they are poorly protected from the virus and do not receive the required salary payments from the state.

The Russian Federation is a vast country that has weak and expensive transport linkages between regions. That prevented the quick spread of the virus in remote territories of the Russian Arctic, Siberia, and the Far East where indigenous peoples live. However, later it was brought to the Northern regions in abundance by the workers of industrial companies who are regularly coming to traditional lands of indigenous peoples riched by natural resources for extracting oil, gas, and other raw materials.

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