COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout Must Include Indigenous Peoples

PIH researchers call for vaccine equity in The Lancet Regional Health 

Posted on Oct 6, 2021

Community health workers approach a home in Laguna Del Cofre for a house call.
Community health workers approach a home in Laguna Del Cofre for a house call. Photo by Aaron Levenson / Partners In Health.

As COVID-19 remains a threat worldwide, lifesaving vaccines continue to be inaccessible for the majority of the world’s population—including Indigenous communities in Latin America and the Caribbean. 

A new letter published in The Lancet Regional Health Americas by researchers including Zeus Aranda of Compañeros En Salud, as Partners In Health is known in Mexico, calls for vaccine campaigns to address the needs of Indigenous peoples in these regions—historically marginalized communities that continue to be disproportionately impacted by global crises, from COVID-19 to climate change

The letter, titled ‘A call for COVID-19 immunization campaigns that address the circumstances of indigenous peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean,’ contends that Indigenous people have been neglected in national COVID-19 vaccine strategies in Latin America and the Caribbean, putting them at risk of a lack of vaccine coverage, even as COVID-19 continues to threaten the regions. 

“Most national immunization plans,” the authors write, “did not involve indigenous communities’ representatives in their development, and lack sociocultural appropriateness, use of indigenous languages, and consideration of the living conditions and socioeconomic adversities affecting these populations.”  

The letter also highlights the repeated violation of Indigenous peoples’ rights by public health workers, resulting in mistrust among some Indigenous communities and reluctance to use government health services. 

For more than a decade, Compañeros En Salud has worked to strengthen Chiapas’ health system in partnership with the Mexican Ministry of Health, focusing its efforts on making health services accessible for historically marginalized communities, including Indigenous peoples. Chiapas is home to about 14% of Mexico’s Indigenous population, as well as a destination for Indigenous people traveling north from Guatemala for seasonal work harvesting coffee in the Sierra Madre region.  

Compañeros En Salud’s pandemic-related work has included fighting misinformation around COVID-19 and strengthening access to vaccines and health information—measures that the letter outlines are critical for governments to consider when developing their vaccine strategies. 

The letter also calls for a breakdown of data that would show vaccination rates in Indigenous communities—evidence that would help health officials better understand the scope of the problem and find solutions. 

When developing vaccine strategies, the letter says, it is crucial for government authorities to respect Indigenous peoples’ rights to autonomy and self-determination—giving historically marginalized communities a seat at the table, listening to their needs, and trusting them to find culturally relevant and effective solutions that will save lives, one vaccine at a time. 

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