Closer watch on vulnerable tribal groups in the Andamans in the face of COVID-19

  • Recently, 11 of the 56 members of the Great Andamanese tribe in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands tested positive for COVID-19.
  • The Great Andamanese tribe is one of the five Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
  • Though all of them have recovered from the coronavirus infection, the administration is now keeping a close watch on their health and other PVTGs to stop them from getting infected.

Earlier this month, when 11 of the 56 surviving members of the Great Andamanese tribe in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands tested positive for coronavirus, it sent the officials of the union territory into a tizzy. Though all the 11 members have recovered, the officials are keeping a close watch on not only them and the remaining members of their community but also on other tribal groups in the islands.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are home to multiple Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) and the Great Andamanese tribe is one among them. These PVTGs are accorded the highest protection by local administration but despite that, a few weeks, ago 11 members of this tribal group were tested positive for COVID-19.

The government of India has categorised 75 tribal groups across the country as PVTG and among them, five are in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Apart from the Great Andamanese tribe, the other four are the Jarawas, Sentinelese, Onge and Shompen.

The members of the Great Andamanese tribe who had tested positive for COVID-19 infection were shifted to isolation wards at Port Blair’s G.B. Pant Hospital. Doctors attending to them informed them that they were asymptomatic. “All of them were fit and fine and they were completely asymptomatic. All have been discharged now,” Avijit Roy, who is the Nodal Officer for COVID-19 management in Andaman and Nicobar Islands told Mongabay-India.

The government officials claim that detailed precautionary measures were taken by the Andaman administration which helped early detection of COVID-19 infection among the tribes.

“As a precautionary measure, the administration had earlier shifted Great Andamanese to Strait Island in April 2020, after testing them for COVID-19. Since many of them are in government jobs and have government accommodation in Port Blair, many families have returned back to Port Blair after the declaration of unlock two and three. Meanwhile, in view of the surge in COVID-19 cases in August, 2020, they were again advised to shift to their settlement at the Strait Island. During the course of shifting and testing at the settlement, 11 Great Andamanese tribals were tested positive for COVID-19 with asymptomatic or mild symptoms and they were kept in GB Pant Hospital as an abundant precaution or in home isolation. After undergoing mandatory isolation period, all of them had tested negative for COVID-19, at different points of time,” an official statement of the Andaman & Nicobar Administration said.

Most of the 56 members of the Great Andamanese tribe live at the Strait Island while some live in Port Blair. Around 17 members of the tribe are working in various departments of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands administration for which they have to remain in Port Blair with their entire family.

According to sources in the Tribal Welfare Department of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands administration, several families of the Great Andamanese reached Port Blair on their own in government ferries as they prefer to live in Port Blair, while a few permanently live and work here.

Secretary of the Tribal Welfare department in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Sanjeev Kumar Mittal also claimed that the administration is now taking all necessary precautions to prevent the spread of infection among the tribal population.

“The Tribal Welfare Officer of AAJVS (Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti) and ANM (Auxiliary Nurse Midwife) of the medical sub-centre at the Strait Island have been provided with thermal scanners and an oximeter to monitor their body temperature and oxygen level periodically. Further, the administration has taken samples of the members of the Onge tribe from Dugong Creek and random samples of Jarawa tribe from different tribal habitations and all of them have tested negative. The Shompens are also safe in their abode at the Great Nicobar Island. All field functionaries posted in the tribal settlements have been advised to be alert to protect the tribes from COVID-19 and have been asked to remain in one place,” Mittal told Mongabay-India.

“This virus does not know who and what a person is. We are trying everything to save them,” a senior officer of the Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS) told Mongabay-India on the condition of anonymity.

Other vulnerable tribal groups need serious protection

The officials of Survival International claim that alcoholism and diseases like tuberculosis are widespread among the Great Andamanese tribe making them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. The Great Andamanese are a small group of just over 50 survivors.

An aerial view of the North Sentinel Island which is home to the Sentinelese tribe. Photo by NASA/Wikimedia Commons.

In a statement, Survival’s Senior Researcher Sophie Grig said that it is “extremely alarming that members of the Great Andamanese tribe tested positive for COVID-19.”

“They will be all too aware of the devastating impact of epidemics that have decimated their people. The Andaman authorities must act urgently to prevent the virus from reaching more Great Andamanese and to prevent infection in the other tribes. 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,” Grig said.

Some of the PVTGs of the Andamans, like the Sentinelese tribe, remain isolated which puts them at greater risk of disease. In 2018, a 26-year-old American missionary was killed at the North Sentinel Island in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago by the protected Sentinelese tribe while he was trying to reach their isolated island.

Rasheed Yusoof, who is state president of the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, said that community spread of COVID-19 infection among the Great Andamanese tribe could have a catastrophic effect on them. “They are considered to be the first tribal community of Andamans and were also the most prominent tribal community. If they can’t be saved from this infection then this is a serious issue. Moreover, the government must see that during COVID-19 pandemic, these tribal people do not starve as they might also face financial problems,” Yusoof told Mongabay-India.

Read more: Sentinelese in shadows: A lesson in letting live

Forests of the islands: Andaman, Nicobar & Lakshadweep deal with development pressures


Banner image: Two members of the Great Andamanese tribe with the president of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands unit of Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad. Photo courtesy of Rasheed Yusoof.

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