Indigenous youth and the COVID-19 crisis: between deepening inequalities and strengthening community-based responses

08 July 2020

Beyond a global health crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic is reinforcing pre-existing socio-economic inequalities. Facing historical marginalization -in both developing and developed countries- indigenous peoples, especially indigenous youth, face particular challenges that highlight the gaps and limitations of national responses. However, these largely invisibilized actors have been organizing collectively to fight the virus through community-based initiatives centred on traditional knowledge and through leading and organising discussions with governments to strengthen interventions.

Indigenous peoples live in more than 90 countries and represent more than 476 million people. While they make up for 6% of the world's population, they constitute almost 19% of people in extreme poverty[1]. Indigenous peoples represent diverse groups, traditions, beliefs, and speak more than 7,000 languages. However, they share key common characteristics:  being minorities in societies, having faced historical discrimination and marginalization. Presently, they are almost three times more likely to be in extreme poverty than their non-Indigenous counterparts. Likewise, they are more likely to work in the informal sectors of the economy and lack access to decent jobs. As youth worldwide face multidimensional vulnerabilities as a result of the Covid-19 crisis,  Indigenous youth are prone to experience additional challenges closely linked to discrimination and fewer educational and employment opportunities induced by the pandemic.  

Worldwide, Indigenous peoples have poor access to basic services, which complicates the adoption of protective measures against the virus. Communication is the first obstacle, as many indigenous communities do not speak the mainstream language of their countries. Key messages on how to adopt preventive measures are often not available in indigenous languages and do not reach indigenous community media.

Access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is an essential service and a key public health issue. However, the disparities in access to these services between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, particularly in remote rural settings, make it difficult to maintain basic hygiene such as handwashing with soap and water.

Whether in rural or urban areas, indigenous people mainly practice traditional occupations or work in the informal sector. They have little or no access to social security coverage and are left out of social protection, health and emergency services.

In social contexts devoid of a reliable healthcare system, women are mostly responsible for caring for their families and for the upbringing of children, increasing their intersectional challenges and reinforcing their “triple burden of labour” of productive, reproductive and domestic tasks. Triply disadvantaged, due to ethnicity, gender and economic discrimination, indigenous women are more likely to be in the informal sector and face higher rates of poverty.

 Despite their exclusion from Covid-19 responses, indigenous youth have been active during the pandemic to both articulate demands and innovate community-based solutions that build on traditional knowledge.

Ancestral knowledge is an essential element of indigenous communities’ strategies and responses. Traditional medicinal plants have historically provided key knowledge to Western medicine and the pharmaceutical and agricultural industries. Today, these continue to be useful in the fight against Covid-19. For example, herbalist students from the Sitting Bull College at the Standing Rock Sioux Reserve in North Dakota, United States, developed and published a guide to herbal medicines for collective protection and healing during COVID- 19. Similarly, the Latin American Indigenous Youth Network, which is part of the Indigenous Regional Platform against Covid-19, highlights the importance of ancestral knowledge, indigenous food systems, and traditional plants and medicine, which can be revalued to strengthen the immune system.

This Indigenous youth network, as well as the Iberoamerican platform of indigenous youth of the Abya Yala are not only promoting initiatives in their own communities but also articulating demands that call for the rights of Indigenous peoples to be respected while developing policies and interventions in response to the crisis. To this end, several statements, declarations and recommendations have been published by different indigenous organizations and alliances (such as COICA, GTI PIACI, ONIC, ECMIA, AIPP[2]).

As the Fund for the Development of the Indigenous Peoples of Latin American and the Caribbean (FILAC) declares, developing policies that recognise and aim to ameliorate the vulnerabilities of the indigenous population is essential to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. Likewise, listening to indigenous youth’s voices is crucial to develop effective interventions.

Limited or no access to main means of communication, WASH systems, social protection and health and emergency services further invisiblises indigenous peoples, marginalising and excluding them from national responses. To construct reactive and coherent public policies and interventions, policymakers must include indigenous needs and voices. It is the starting point to ensure that they are not left behind as we build back better from the crisis.

by Paola Lucia Rivera (ILO)

This article is part of the Decent Jobs for Youth Blog Series: Youth Rights & Voices. The Blog Series highlights the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young women and men in the world of work and discusses action-oriented policy responses and solutions. If you would like to comment or contribute, please contact


[1]  ILO (2019), Implementing the ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention n. 169 – Towards an inclusive, sustainable and just future.

[2] The Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), the International Working Group on Indigenous Peoples in Isolation and Initial Contact in the Amazon and in the Gran Chaco (GTI PIACI). The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), the Continental Liaison of Indigenous Women of the Americas (ECMIA), Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP).


Paola Lucia Rivera

Research Associate

International Labour Organization

Year of publication

08 July 2020