Pandemics' historical role in creating inequality

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Science  19 Jun 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6497, pp. 1322-1323
DOI: 10.1126/science.abc8953

In her News Feature “An unequal blow” (15 May, p. 700), L. Wade explores how past pandemics disproportionately affected marginalized groups. It is important to recognize that in addition to exacerbating marginalization, pandemics set the stage for inequalities that have persisted for centuries (1). Historically, pathogens introduced by European conquistadors and colonists contributed to Indigenous population collapses throughout the Americas, facilitating colonial exploitation (2). Abrupt declines in the health and size of Indigenous populations, socio-cultural dislocation, and opportunistic grabs for resources became a strategy used by successive colonial governments (3). As scientists, we have a role in dismantling this colonial playbook to prevent coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) from further marginalizing Indigenous communities.

Today's Indigenous peoples are facing a pandemic crisis. In North America, the Navajo Nation battles the virus across a vast region with irregular access to health services as a result of insufficient federal funding (4, 5). The United States relies on agricultural laborers from Central America to maintain its supply chains but is deporting contagious workers (6, 7), thereby seeding outbreaks in Mexico, where the disenfranchisement of 22 million Indigenous people makes the spread of disease difficult to control (8). In the Brazilian Amazon, Manaus is a national COVID-19 hotspot. The health system is overwhelmed, and Indigenous people previously displaced by the local government struggle to avert a 21st-century demographic collapse while fighting seizure of their lands (9).

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COVID-19 victims are buried daily in this cemetery in Manaus, Brazil, where the health system has been overwhelmed.


Solving the crisis demands more than overhauling health infrastructure; it requires changing power relations to redress structural inequalities borne of colonialism. The path forward involves listening to Indigenous communities, promoting human-centered investment in sustainable development, and enforcing treaties and Indigenous land rights. For scientists, COVID-19 does not justify perpetuating extractive practices or pressuring communities to engage in research (10). Acknowledging Indigenous sovereignty is now more vital than ever. We must seize the opportunity this pandemic presents for societal transformation: Only through Indigenous self-determination, collaboration, and research partnerships rooted in mutual respect can the Americas write a new playbook that fulfills the often stated but seldom realized ideals of equality for all.

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