By Luisa Maria Jacinta C. Jocson
MARCELINO S. TENA, a tribal leader of the Dumagat community in Quezon province south of Manila, the Philippine capital, is on guard against vaccines.
“Indigenous people (IPs) are afraid of injections,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat in Filipino. “Since the coronavirus lockdown began, we IPs have been afraid of getting sick, infecting others and potentially dying from the virus.”
Members of the seafaring original group wear face masks and keep their distance as a health protocol, but only when leaving their home to go to town.
“We do not wear face masks in our community so we can continue to breathe the fresh air, fish in our waters and eat healthy food,” said Mr. Tena. “That’s how we stay strong.”
More than 67 million of about 110 million Filipinos have been fully vaccinated against coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), of which about 13 million were also injected with booster shots, according to the health department.
In contrast, only 1.07 million of about 22 million indigenous peoples have been fully vaccinated, which is a concern as a new rise in infections again triggers lockdowns in several countries, including China, where coronavirus is thought to have occurred.
The government is racing to vaccinate more people as it reopens the economy and protects the population from future variants of coronavirus.
The Philippines may experience another increase in coronavirus infections in May or June, similar to what other countries are experiencing now, according to the OCTA Research Group from the University of the Philippines.
Most indigenous communities follow health protocols, although they mostly stay in their areas, said Roda Tajon, a program coordinator at the Philippine Task Force for Indigenous Peoples’ Rights (TFIP).
“IPs feel more secure in their communities,” she said in an email. “They rarely go out and are exposed to infections.”
While indigenous peoples’ traditional lifestyles are a source of their resilience, they can also pose a threat during a pandemic, according to the UN. “For example, most indigenous communities regularly hold large traditional gatherings to mark special events, e.g. harvest, government ceremonies, etc. Some indigenous communities also live in multi-generational housing, which puts indigenous peoples and their families, especially the elderly, at risk, ”it adds.
In many rural areas, indigenous tribes treat diseases with herbal remedies found in their ancestral lands.
“These turn out to be very effactive and safe, ”said Mrs Tajon. “Besides using herbal remedies, they are rarely exposed to COVID-19 cases because they usually spend their days on the farm. It was only when outsiders and returned residents came that things escalated.”
While the metropolitan area experienced a series of back and forth lockdowns, IP communities were mostly unaffected by the madness of the pandemic.
“Within the domain of our ancestors, especially in the inner barangays, the pandemic did not affect their lives so much,” Maria Angelica P. Umingli, an Isnag from Kabugao, Apayao, said in a text message.
As there was an increase in the Isnag community, rural health and disaster agencies moved quickly to curb the outbreak.
Ms. Tajon said pandemic lockdowns had affected indigenous peoples’ livelihoods and exacerbated their lack of access to social services such as health care given their remote locations.
“Without any health workers present, IPs opted for self-treatment of common diseases,” she added.
Vaccine hesitation in these communities is common, mainly due to the lack of health education.
“IPs are reluctant to receive vaccines because they are afraid of the suspected side effects. The Dengvaxia scare and disinformation on social media does not help either.”
In Palawan and Mindoro provinces, indigenous peoples are afraid to visit rural health departments for common ailments such as coughs and colds for fear they may be diagnosed with COVID-19, Tajon said. Some in Luzon and the Visayas avoided seeking treatment because they might have to undergo a test they could not afford.
“The lack of state health workers for IPs also forced them to seek private doctors, often leaving them in debt,” Tajon said.
In a TFIP study, pregnant native women carried the majority of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Even before the pandemic, the ban on home birth did it yoursfficult for native women to allocate resources and prepare, ”according to the report.
Travel restrictions and test requirements became more burdensome, forcing them to leave their homes months before giving birth and staying with relatives.
Their companions, usually husbands, had to undergo antigen testing, which cost a lot. “Without sufficient resources, they hardly get by and survive.”
Ms. Umingli said her community would have been open to traditional medicine and vaccinations if these were taught to them properly.
“Some are reluctant fiFirst but with proper explanation and understanding they were convinced and got their vaccine, ”she said.
Aside from being poorly informed, there is also no comprehensive data on indigenous peoples affected by the pandemic.
“Shared data could have provided more groups with the important information to support effin connection with the provision of medical and emergency services, ”said Ms Tajon.
“The vaccine delay is not the main reason for the low vaccination rate, but the availability of public health services and health education for the people,” Philippine Nurses United Secretary-General Jocelyn S. Andamo said in a text message.
Fear of vaccines among IPs is understandable, said Maristela P. Abenojar, president of Filipino Nurses United, in a Viber announcement. “This is a problem that needs to be addressed by the government by strengthening the public health system.”
Other health experts said the state should increase vaccination efforts and create an inclusive, nationwide health campaign.
“Unless the virus transmission is stopped, no one will be safe from becoming infected and from the emergence of new variants,” Teodoro B. Padilla, executive director of the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines, said in an email.
“Although vaccination is not mandatory, everyone is e.g.ffEfforts must be made to include the IPs as priorities and address their specific needs and cultural backgrounds to ensure their free, prior and informed consent, “he added.
The corona virus has sickened 3.69 million and killed more than 60,000 Filipinos. Globally, half a billion people have been infected, with more than 6 million deaths, according to the Worldometer website, citing various sources, including data from the World Health Organization.
“These figures show the catastrophic impact of COVID-19 on human life and health. Members of the IP communities have not been spared,” said Mr. Padilla
IPs should have access to accurate information about the benefit of being vaccinated against COVID-19, Abenojar said.
Mr. Tena, the Dumagat tribe, said the coronavirus is just a stain in a sea of government deficiencies. “COVID is not the biggest problem we face that threatens our livelihoods and way of life.”