Health

Are the indigenous people of Andaman and Nicobar contracting COVID-19

Jarawas also very vulnerable; experts say administrative failure to blame for tribals getting infected

 
By Rajat Ghai
Published: Tuesday 25 August 2020
5 Great Andamanese test positive for novel coronavirus. Photo: Anvita Abbi
Great Andamanese boys squatting around a fire. Photo: Anvita Abbi Great Andamanese boys squatting around a fire. Photo: Anvita Abbi

At least five members of the Great Andamanese tribal group, an indigenous people of the Andaman archipelago, have tested positive for the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), two people who follow the islands’ affairs, claimed.

“Seven people have tested positive. Five of them tribals and two are their non-tribal spouses,” Denis Giles, Editor of Port Blair-based the Andaman Chronicle told Down To Earth (DTE) on August 24, 2020. The newspaper first reported on the development on August 21. 

Linguist Anvita Abbi, who has worked extensively on the archipelago’s indigenous languages, said she knew the five.  

Attempts to contact Chetan Sanghi, chief secretary of Andaman and Nicobar, and Susheel Anchipaka, deputy commissioner of South Andaman district, have drawn no response. 

“A blame game is currently going on among the administration,” Abbi said.

“From my investigation, I have concluded that it is the Andaman Aadim Janjati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS) that is to blame,” Giles said. AAJVS is an autonomous body that advises the administration on the protection and welfare of aboriginal tribes on the islands, especially the Jarawas.

On August 5, reports in the national media stated that five staffers of the AAJVS tested positive.

The Great Andamanese should have been shifted to Strait Island. Even if they were in Port Blair, they should have been confined to one area and explained about the pandemic, Giles said.

“In the case of the Jarawas, the administration has claimed that they have been shifted to the west coast of the Jarawa Tribal Reserve, located mostly on Middle and South Andaman Island. The Andaman Trunk Road and other settlements are on the eastern coast,” Giles said.

On August 18, eight local fishermen were arrested for venturing inside the Jarawa Tribal Reserve.

The biggest lacuna with respect to the archipelago’s tribes in the context of COVID-19, Giles said, was that there was no policy initiative yet: “There is a separate department for tribal welfare. They already have experts whom they could have contacted and discussed with as to how to control this pandemic.”

Among the directives issued by the administration was one which said the tribe was to relocate to the western part of the island, Abbi said. “In case there was any health issue, one of the department’s health assistants would look after,” she added.

“The patients, the Andamanese tribals who have tested positive, are in hospital right now. Their condition is stable. One is already cured and the rest are recovering,” Rose Shimray, Assistant Commissioner of the AAJVS told DTE.

Other tribes

“Nicobar is safe currently. Very few people went from Port Blair to that place and are under quarantine. A few people in Campbell Bay in Great Nicobar arrived from Port Blair. Their treatment and isolation is going on. The Nicobar district administration is taking many more steps than the South Andaman administration,” Giles said.

Like the Nicobarese, there was no need for worry regarding the Shompen too, said Giles. “They are in Great Nicobar Island but they are very isolated and live in the jungle. The contact between the Shompen and the settlers is minimal except for the AAJVS workers and the welfare staff,” he said.

For Onges, there have not been many cases in Hut Bay and Little Andaman. Moreover, the settler population was totally cut off from the Onge settlement, Giles said.

“At present, there is a welfare officer posted in Dugong Creek where the Onge settlement is. He is negative and is ensuring that the tribe is safe,” Giles added.

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