By: Gabriel Tripura1, Anish Shrestha1, Ziwei Chen1, Caroline Lee1, Jennie Kim1, Julie Kim1, Victor A. Lopez-Carmen2, Brendan Eappen2
The Chittagong Hill Tracts Community
The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) is located in Southeastern Bangladesh, a region that is very remote and inaccessible as it is surrounded by hilly and mountainous geography. The CHT region is composed of 3 Hill Districts, Bandarban, Rangamati and Khagrachari, where 11 ethnic/Indigenous groups reside. Each of these individual communities has its own distinct culture, traditions, beliefs, and identity.
Tripura girls of the Chittagong Hill Tracts communities. Image source: Gabriel Tripura
The Indigenous people in the CHT face many socioeconomic, health, and educational challenges. In certain remote areas, there is no access to roads, transportation sources, and mobile networks. Additionally, the literacy rate is very low, with most adults being illiterate.
Most of the people make their living by slash-and-burn agriculture, but due to soil and climate change, this profession is becoming increasingly unprofitable. The livelihood of the community is highly dependent on the season. There are 6 total seasons in Bangladesh, and 3 of these seasons pose particular challenges for the community. In the Winter season, it is extremely cold and individuals struggle with lack of adequate clothing. In the Summer or the dry season, the lack of water sources becomes an issue. Finally, in the rainy season, many areas become flooded, causing roads to become muddy and landslides to occur. In this season, it is also difficult to find jobs to earn a living wage, and the contaminated water increases rates of water-borne diseases such as malaria, typhoid, and dysentery.
Given the remote environment and vulnerable situation of Indigenous communities in CHT, these communities are at-risk for being heavily impacted by natural disasters and pandemics, such as COVID-19.
Tipura women of the Chittagong Hill Tracts communities. Image source: Gabriel Tripura
The Impact of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted Indigenous communities all over the world. However, the local practices, beliefs, traditions and customs of the Indigenous communities in the CHT have created a unique and critical situation. These communities did not have access to detailed information about COVID-19. However, when they heard that COVID-19 is a deadly disease, the fear led Indigenous communities to make decisions to build fences and not permit anyone to leave or enter the villages. If someone is found to be symptomatic, he or she must stay at a separate house outside of the village. Any person who violates the rules is fined and punished according to social customs.
Indigenous people in the CHT often seek care from the local healer, known as a boidya. The boidya lives in the community and charges a fee for treatment, which depends on the patient’s situation and ability to pay. These healers may slaughter cows, pigs, goats, or chickens as a part of their treatment.
There are many challenges to align official state policies with the Indigenous knowledge that is widely acceptable within the community. In addition, there are no facilities or effective services available to these communities to gain access to masks, hand washing, or hand sanitizer. Additionally, because these resources are normally unavailable, members of these communities do not understand the importance of these products.
Even within these vulnerable communities, certain groups are impacted more by COVID-19 than others. In particular, children, young girls, lactating mothers, and pregnant women face problems regarding nutrition, mental health, and physical treatment. These issues are further exacerbated because facilities that normally address these issues are shut down in order to prevent COVID-19 transmission.
Many families have also experienced food crises, because they are unable to work outside or receive any outside support due to the lockdown. Instead, individuals have had to resort to searching for food within the community boundaries.
Personal Story of a Young Indigenous Woman
Tripura Indigenous young woman. Image source: Gabriel Tripura
One example of how COVID-19 has affected the lives of the indigenous community is the story of Ms. Martina Tripura. Ms. Tripura is a part of the Tripura Indigenous group and lives in a rural area with her parents.
Her knowledge of COVID-19 is limited, besides the fact that the disease is killing people all over the world. Ms. Martina Tripura currently faces many difficulties due to the changes made due to COVID-19, which have negatively impacted her mental health and personal lifestyle. She is always isolated at home, can’t attend school, unable to communicate with the outside world and participate in social activities, and can’t access medical facilities, even to purchase menstrual products.
Due to the sudden occurrence of COVID, these people cannot physically be with their families. Her entire community is facing many difficulties, including a food crisis, lack of access to medical services, impaired economic development, and fear of COVID-19 transmission. As a result, COVID-19 has rendered the community helpless and vulnerable. She predicts that even after the COVID-19 pandemic, people will have more problems regarding equality, humanitarian services, development, and social harmony.
Immediate Concerns & Needs
Humanitarian support, human rights, and dignity should be available to everyone in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Indigenous Communities in the CHT live everyday under threats, discrimination, humiliation, and uncertainty, which has been further exacerbated due to COVID-19.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) community faces the following four issues related to COVID-19:
- Since communities lives closely together; if an outbreak occurs, it will be almost, if not, impossible to control, especially with the lack of knowledge and resources available
- The lack of food hinders individual’s ability to maintain health regulations and sustain themselves
- The lack of information and communication difficulties make it difficult to connect with authorities and service providers
- Individuals can’t adequately protect themselves due to the lack of preventive measures at the community level
Given the above issues, the following services are immediately needed to save the community’s lives:
- Consultations with similar communities, advocates, and mental health support for technical expertise
- Increased access to preventative equipment and materials
- Assistance designing short-, mid-, and long-term service strategies in consultation with communities
- Basic wellbeing services for the communities’ survival, such as food resources
Tripura Indigenous Elder. Image source: Gabriel Tripura
The Tripura Indigenous Peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in collaboration with the UN Global Indigenous Youth Caucus (GIYC) and Harvard Medical School COVID-19 Student Response have prepared this information for an international call to action. To protect the vitality and diversity of human and environmental life, we need to shift time and resources to the global Indigenous population. To contribute to the Tripura during the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit this fundraiser: https://gf.me/u/yf7aq3
Blog by the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus