Caught between the virus and poverty: Impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on indigenous communities in India


“Are we not human? Don’t we have flesh and blood? We have been toiling in the field, which is why you have enough to feed yourself and your family. Don’t forget that.” shouted Nanchiamma and stood silently for a while under the shadow of the bus waiting-shed.

She started again, “My son was sweating his blood for our survival; he is not a virus carrier. Then, why are we treated like this? Don’t we have the right to live?” She burst into tears and then squatted on the ground in desperation.

After two years of fieldwork among indigenous communities in the Wayanad district in Kerala, India, I was returning home amidst the strict lockdown in April 2020. Nanchiamma’s words exemplified how the COVID-19 control measures have amplified pre-existing vulnerabilities of the poor and marginalised indigenous communities. The Kerala model of development and Kerala’s decentralised model of COVID-19 management have been much celebrated globally; however, indigenous people like Nanchiamma have always existed at the periphery of such developmental models. They account for 1.5% of the state’s total population, and their voice has seldom been represented in the decentralised planning.

I have known Nanchiamma’s family for over a year. She is a middle-aged mother of five children and lives in a remote forest tribal settlement. Her husband, who was a migrant labourer, died almost two years ago. Henceforth, the family used to collect minor forest products for their livelihood. But this year, due to a few reported cases of Kyasanur Forest Disease in her area, households from her settlement have been prevented from entering the forest, leading to the loss of her family’s livelihood. Nanchiamma’s community that was forest-dependent for their food became dependent on the staple food ration provided through the Public Distribution System. Nanchiamma’s third child was diagnosed with thalassemia and needed constant attention. Given her additional household chores as a single mother ,caring for her younger children was often compromised and her youngest child was found undernourished in our study. My further interaction with a community worker from the Tribal development department revealed that Nanchiamma’s eldest son was working as a migrant agriculture labourer about 100 km away from their village, in the state of Karnataka. In this way, Nanchiamma’s life was already at an intersection of multiple vulnerabilities before the COVID-19 lockdown.

The lockdown has further intensified her family’s vulnerabilities leading to a precarious existence. After the rapid lockdown on 24 March 2020, Nanchiamma’s eldest son got stranded in Karnataka along with other migrant labourers. When I met her, Nanchiamma had been anxious for a week since she was unable to contact her son or anybody with him. To top it all, rumours were spreading in the village that migrant workers were attacked by a mob of non-indigenous people in Karnataka alleging that they were trying to spread the virus. This compounded her fear and desperation. A week later, with some support from the Tribal development department, her son and his colleagues finally managed to reach home.

The broader picture for indigenous communities in India

Media reports across India during the lockdown showed that indigenous communities who were already at the sharp end of inequality suffered a disproportionate burden of livelihood loss. Defying the lockdown curfew, thousands of migrant workers fled from the capital city to their distant villages on foot, increasing their risk of contracting the disease. They were filmed saying:

 “I might die from hunger rather than from the virus.”

Hunger was perceived to be more dangerous than the coronavirus by many of them. Many were still staying in small shanties or slums and sharing space with many members. Maintaining physical distancing and handwashing practices were nearly impossible under such conditions. Forest-dependent indigenous and Pastoralist communities suffered severe financial losses as they could not sell their products.  Several indigenous people across the country could not access public welfare support due to geographical remoteness and structural impediments. In addition to this, when the fear of virus infection increased during the lockdown, prejudice and discrimination were consolidated and acted out through microaggression and mob attacks on the indigenous communities, who are at the lowest rung of Indian cast hierarchy.

In line with the racial and ethnic minorities in the United States, migrant labourers in Singapore, slum dwellers in African and South Asian regions, or prisoners across many countries, the indigenous communities in India illustrate the diverse ways the poor and marginalised people have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The stigma and discrimination that the marginalised communities faced during the lockdown and their economic precarity indicate the multi-level dynamic between the social, political and economic processes involved in the unequal impact of COVID-19 on the poor globally.


(Pseudonym is used to anonymise the participant)

About the author: Sabu K U is a research associate at Health equity cluster, Institute of Public Health, Bengaluru, India. His research focuses on understanding the pathways and mechanism that create and sustain the health and nutritional inequality among indigenous communities in India.

Acknowledgements: I thank Ritwik Dahake and Kristof Decoster for their support in preparing this blog

Competing interest: I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and declare that I have no conflict of interest.

Handling Editor: Neha Faruqui

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