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Covid threatens Andaman tribes

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PORT BLAIR/MUMBAI : Delhi’s Nizamuddin area, fast emerging as a covid-19 hotspot, could have an unsuspecting victim in one of the world’s most ancient tribes living in faraway Andaman and Nicobar Islands, with potentially devastating consequences.

The Andaman Islands, home to the Jarawa, Onge and Shompen indigenous people, whose low natural immunity makes them particularly vulnerable to diseases, have recorded several coronavirus cases directly linked to the religious congregation in South Delhi’s Nizamuddin Markaz, organized by Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic missionary movement.

In the past week, the islands have seen an alarming rise in infections since reporting the first case on 26 March.

Confirmed cases currently stand at 10 with more than 1,500 under home and special quarantine.

Local authorities have found that several people who had attended the event in Delhi made their way back to the islands before the country was placed under lockdown on 25 March.

Government officials, who did not wish to be named, said of the ten positive cases identified so far, seven had left Port Blair on 16 February to attend the Jamaat in Delhi. Subsequently, all of them tested positive on return, spreading the infection to three more persons who came in close contact with them. According to officials, so far samples of 40 suspected cases have been sent for testing and several localities, where the seven patients had visited on their arrival to Andamans, are under complete lockdown.

Experts said the current situation poses a grave risk to the tribes, especially the Jarawas who live in tribal reserves barely 100km from capital Port Blair, where most infections have been reported.

While the local administration has assured that all possible safeguards will be taken and has imposed strict restrictions around the reserves, experts said that a past outbreak of measles epidemic among the Jarawa, thought to be spread by direct contact with outsiders, mainly non-tribal settlers, serves as a grim reminder.

The Jarawas, numbering around 300 today, have survived the outbreak twice.

In the first, in 1999, 108 Jarawa were known to have been infected but there were no reports of fatalities. There was a second outbreak in 2006 but it is not clear how many contracted the disease.

“The only way to contain a spread is to follow complete isolation of the tribes,” said Madhumala Chattopadhyay, a noted anthropologist, well-known for making the first contact with the Sentinelese, a remote tribe that still remains hostile to outsiders.

Chattopadhyay, now a joint director in the ministry of social justice and empowerment, was part of the government response team to reach the Jarawas soon after the first measles outbreak in 1999.

“A covid-19 outbreak would bring the entire race to the brink of extinction and there are no two ways about it,” she warned.

Experts said one of the key reasons for the rising contact with the Jarawa is the construction of the Andaman Trunk Road, a two-lane highway that connects parts of middle and south Andaman and passes through the heart of Jarawa territory. And though the government has banned any outside contact, critics argue the road has led to free mixing with the tribe, often with disastrous consequences.

This is not the first time the tribes have faced a threat of this magnitude. The islands are home to five different indigenous groups.

The Great Andamanese were once the most numerous of the five, with an estimated population of 6,000, but only around 50 survive today, most succumbing to diseases brought in by colonial settlers British rule.

“Diseases, mainly syphilis, claimed many lives of the Great Andamanese, driving them to near extinction,’’ said Chattopadhyay.

Courtesy – Live Mint

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