Report by Dmitry Berezhkov (Arctic Consult, Norway, June 2020)
The COVID-19 pandemic hit Russia at the end of March 2020. That was later than for most European countries and gave the Government time to prepare adequately for the health and economic crisis. Russian authorities implemented some measures to prevent the spread of the virus, including closing the border with China, but have failed to stop the infection, which started from big cities that linked closely with European capitals and resorts.
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.
Over some time, the virus had come to remote indigenous territories. However, there were not many disease outbreaks in indigenous communities, fortunately, because of the quarantine measures for the workers of extractive industries who are not able to visit nearby villages. At the same time, extractive companies did not stop the work and failed to implement adequate preventive measures against the epidemic, so industrial projects continue to be the primary source of the COVID-19 in Russia’s Northern territories where indigenous peoples live.
The health care system in Russia was not prepared well for the virus spread, also because it was reformed recently by the Russian Government, which resulted in a catastrophic reduction of the medical facilities, especially in rural and remote regions that are home for indigenous peoples.
The response measures implemented by the Russian government put some indigenous communities in a stressful situation because of the cut connections between different parts of society. According to the numerous independent researches, the state economic support of Russian citizens during the forced quarantine downtime was not adequate. Its receiving was hampered by numerous bureaucratic obstacles that were especially difficult for vulnerable groups, including indigenous people.
Even during the COVID-19 crisis, some state officials tried to use the response measures to promote their own political agenda, while violating free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples and their right on self-determination, which is the long-time trend in today’s Russia.
In general, the outbreak of COVID-19 became a severe threat to the sustainable development of indigenous peoples of the Russian Arctic, Siberia, and the Far East. The remoteness and transport isolation of indigenous communities became an advantage during the first phase of the COVID-19 spread but could be aggravating factors in the future.