Covid-19 Surfaces Even in Highly Isolated Andaman Islands; Ancient Tribes at Risk of Extinction?

Experts asked Andaman authorities to act urgently to prevent the Coronavirus from reaching Great Andamanese

The novel Coronavirus which affected millions of people globally and killed over 800,000, has found its new target—indigenous people of the Great Andaman islands. As per the reports, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands administration has reported 10 cases of Covid-19 among the Great Andamanese tribe.

Vishvajit Pandya, an anthropologist, and director of the Andaman and Nicobar Tribal Research and Training Institute said that the population of the Great Andamanese are small, but these people are in touch with the general population of Andaman. "While no one is allowed to visit Strait Island, they are allowed to come and stay in Port Blair. So the risk of them getting Covid-19 was high," he explained.

The renowned anthropologist, who was present when the tribes—known as 'Jarawas'—made their first contact with the outside world in 1997, stressed on the need to keep the trials of the Andaman isolated. He said that the Great Andaman Trunk Road is still open.

Barter Trade

"If the administration thinks that since the tribal groups are deep in the jungles they will not come in touch with settlers, they are wrong," Pandya said. He also added that the tribes Jarawas, Shompens are "vulnerable to Covid-19" due to their engagement with settlers in barter to get rice and other items.

The Coronavirus cases in the remote Strait Island has raised concerns among the island administration about the safety of the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) and other indigenous people.

As of Friday, August 28 six of the 10 infected people have recovered and currently in-home quarantine, while others are undergoing treatment at a local hospital. Over 50 Great Andamanese are currently living on the tiny island, while the Indian government looks after their food and shelter.

 Strait Island
Strait Island, Andaman Google Map

Vulnerable Tribes

The Union territory has seen more than 2,900 SARS-CoV-2 cases (676 of which are active) and over 40 fatalities so far. But the Great Andamanese is the first among its vulnerable tribes to be hit by the virus. The Indian authorities have sent health officials to the tiny island last Sunday, August 23, after six members of the tribal group tested positive for the virus.

Avijit Ray, a senior health officer in charge of disease management in the Andamans said, "The team tested 37 samples and four members of the Great Andamanese tribe were found to be positive. They are admitted to a local hospital."

Great Andamanese tribe
Great Andamanese tribe Wikimedia commons

The Tribes of Andaman

More than 5,000 Great Andamanese used to live in the islands when British settlers arrived in the 19th century. While defending the territory from the foreigners, hundreds were killed. Later, thousands of local tribes were wiped out in epidemics of measles, influenza, and syphilis.

Currently, there are four tribes in islands -- Sentinelese, the Jarawa, Onge, and Andamanese. In recent days, concerns have grown for the safety of tribes, as poachers continue to invade their territory despite strict restrictions imposed by the government of India.

Recently, local media reported that eight fishermen were arrested for illegally entering the territory belonging to Jarawa tribes. In 2018, the violent death of an American missionary—26-year-old John Allen Chau from Washington—on North Sentinel Island raised questions about the survival of uncontacted and isolated Andaman tribes and their right to remain free from interference from the outside world. Outsiders are banned from visiting the island, to protect the tribal group from infectious diseases.

As per an expert, Sophie Grig, the local authorities must act urgently to prevent the Coronavirus from reaching more Great Andamanese and to prevent infection in the other tribes. She also advised, "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."

Related topics : Coronavirus
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