COVID-19 is making it more difficult for Colombia’s indigenous Wayuu people to survive, according to a report released Thursday by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health.
The Wayuu are an indigenous group that lives in La Guajira, a state in northeastern Colombia. In La Guajira, there is a high rate of poverty and a lack of sufficient food, water and health service access. This, combined with a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, government corruption and climate change, has led to high levels of malnutrition in La Guajira.
One in every 10 children under the age of 5 dies due to malnutrition. On average, one child dies because of malnutrition every week, which is six times the national rate. Even though La Guajira has roughly 7 percent of Colombia’s population, it accounted for over 20 percent of the country’s malnutrition deaths in children under five in 2019. Many deaths go unreported.
Wayuu people often walk hours to obtain water, and often this water is contaminated, leading to poor hygiene and disease. As many as 75 percent of La Guajira families are food insecure. Many children only eat once a day, and they often depend upon meals provided at school.
According to the report, COVID-19 poses a threat not only to the health of an “already struggling population,” but also has economic impacts that may deepen food insecurity and increase challenges to access water, healthcare, and education.
In La Guajira, there were at least 1,808 cases of and 103 deaths from COVID-19 as of July 27. At least 49 Wayuu people were infected. The pandemic has amplified food insecurity because many Wayuu families have lost their source of income due to COVID-19. Only 10 percent of the families have internet access, so they are unable to work remotely. Additionally, children who depended upon government-provided meals at school are unable to get these meals because schools are currently closed.
HRW urged Colombia’s government to ensure that all people have adequate food, safe and affordable water, and accessible health services. As the report said:
Even if Covid-19 itself does not devastate Wayuu communities, the further limits on access to food could, since thousands of children rely on meals that were provided in schools, which are now shut down. Although the government, private sector actors, and humanitarian groups are delivering thousands of food baskets, the inaccessibility of many Wayuu communities means some of the most vulnerable have no food.