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Dr Rawiri Taonui Covid| Indigenous Checkpoints Fighting Disease and Racism
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Dr Rawiri Taonui Covid | Indigenous Checkpoints Fighting Disease and Racism

16062020 1

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, has said that over the last five centuries the most reliable Indigenous strategy to protect our vulnerable communities against the familiar foe of a foreign introduced disease is the ability to isolate. She believes this is still the best strategy today with Covid-19.

A paper from 15 medical experts, academics and Indigenous leaders in The Lancet comprehensively details such a strategy, the heart of which centres on ‘voluntary collective isolation’ within secure borders.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal, cites successful examples of this strategy, which they term protective sequestration, during the Spanish Flu (1918) in the United States, noting the keys are isolation in remote havens, closure of borders, use of checkpoints, limited departures, and keeping outsiders beyond borders.

Indigenous Checkpoint Strategy

Beginning in March this year, Indigenous Peoples raced to protect themselves via isolation – checkpoint strategies from the Canadian Arctic through the Americas to the Brazilian Amazon, and, from Africa through Asia across to Australia, New Zealand and Oceania. As Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc around the globe, the fate of many who have adopted this strategy is undetermined:

  • In Asia, the Cordillera region and Kankana-ey-Igorot of the Philippines, the Orang Asli in Jemeri Malaysia, the Ngata Toro Community in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia.
  • Across South America, 350 villages of the Shuar community in the Ecuadorian Amazon, 2,000 Indigenous communities in Peru, the Sierra Nevada First Peoples in Colombia, the Sao Gabriel da Cachoeira region on the border of Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia, and tribes in the Brazilian Amazon like the Xingu who have blockaded roads into an area the size of Belgium.
  •  And in Africa the Maasai Indigenous groups of southern Kenya.

There is however sufficient data for this article to assess the efforts of the Indigenous Peoples in Australia, Canada, the United States and New Zealand. This is the focus of this article.

Three Waves of Disease and Racism

Indigenous communities worldwide share common vulnerabilities to Covid-19. This derives from the legacy of three macro-waves of disease and racism that have swept through Indigenous communities over the last half-millennium.

The first, transported by explorers, missionaries, traders and settlers, decimated Indigenous populations through an absence of immunity to new European diseases. Death rates regularly exceeded those of the fourteenth-century Black Death in Europe typically reducing First Nation populations by 60% to 90% within the first century of contact or less.

Disease was sometimes knowingly or deliberately spread. Captain James Cook disapproved but did not stop the dirty maritime cocks of his Endeavour spreading gonorrhoea and syphilis in the Pacific. Colonists in North America purposefully distributed Smallpox infected blankets to local tribes to ‘extirpate this execrable race’. Indigenous communities in New Zealand and Australia have claimed the same.

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The second macro-wave arrived during settlement phases of colonisation. Comprising multiple epidemic events, they repeatedly battered Indigenous communities because, although immuno-resistance had increased, land theft, demographic and cultural genocide and the rape of natural resources had immunocompromised declining community populations by forcing them to eke out incrementally subsistence existences on ever smaller parcels of increasingly marginal land.

Racism exonerated white conscience, for instance, by explaining disproportionate Māori deaths as due to ‘racial weakness’ ‘filthy villages’ and dirty ‘Māori ma’(women).

Aid was often withheld from suffering communities. During the 1862 Smallpox Epidemic in British Columbia, Vancouver Island officials withheld vaccines from Indigenous peoples because as one newspaper described ‘should the disease only spread among the Indians … our authorities would rest undisturbed, content that the small-pox is a fit successor to the moral ulcer [the Indians] that has festered at our doors’. Another commented, ‘What is an Indians life worth? Not so much as a dog’.

As sickness mounted, the dead rotted where they lay, a thousand in one settlement alone. First Nations were then evicted from the island. A steamer towed 26 open canoes of woe back to homelands along the British Columbia coast in the hope that ‘the seeds of a loathsome disease will take root and bring both a plentiful crop of ruin and destruction, not many months can elapse ‘ere the Northern Indians of this coast will exist only in story’. Smallpox obliged a scythed 70%.

The third wave of that inheritance is expressed in disproportionate rates of infection and death in all modern pandemic - epidemic events from the Spanish Flu (1918), Asian Flu (1957) and the H1N1 Swine Flu (2009). Each was worsened by intergenerational poverty, higher rates of comorbid chronic illness, over-crowded poor housing, and white racism in health delivery. During Swine Flu, Indigenous Peoples died at a rate six times higher than Europeans across the Americas and Pacific.



Indigenous Profile

There are 800,000 Indigenous Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia of which 150,000 live in remote communities.

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Australian history includes racist checkpoints targeting non-European communities. When the Afghan arrived with smallpox on board in 1888, non-Chinese were granted permission to disembark, Chinese passengers were not allowed to disembark.

Total Indigenous mortality during the Spanish Flu is not known as Indigenous Australians were not counted in the population census but in livestock estimates unconnected to human health. What data does exists informs that they were at least 33% of all deaths in Queensland. During Swine Flu, Indigenous Australians, at 2.5% of the population, were 11% of all infections and 12% of all deaths.

Isolation and Checkpoints

There is widespread acceptance in Australia that Covid-19 is especially threatening to Indigenous Australians because of poverty, comorbidities, and inadequate health care.

As Australia passed 60 cases on 5 March, the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara people introduced strict rules for entry to their lands. Within two weeks, multiple other Indigenous groups closed their lands, many with the assistance of the State of Western Australia and the Northern Territory governments. On 19 March, Northern Territory leaders and the Aboriginal Central Land Council called on the federal government to declare a State-wide special control area:

  • Right now, we have a small window of opportunity to stop the virus from spreading in the Territory and we want governments to ‘do what it takes’ to use it. If we don’t act now, we will sooner or later end up with the same level of infection as Sydney and Melbourne, only with far fewer hospital beds and other basic health resources to treat our sick. Our constituents worry that an entire generation of elders could be wiped out if we allow the virus to enter their communities, and that the death toll even among younger family members would be far higher than for the rest of the nation.

On 22 March, the Federal Government announced it would restrict access to remote communities to keep Indigenous Australians safe. Legislation was passed four days later. Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared support for the measures. Indigenous community members living in cities were asked to return and seek protection in homelands.


The latest data from 24 May proves that quick action with full government support is pivotal to a successful fight against Covid-19. There are no cases in remote Indigenous communities. Nationally, there were 59 Indigenous Australian cases, at a rate of 7.4 per 100,000 of the population (per100k), well below the 28 per100k total for the Australian population.


Indigenous Profile

The 1.673 million Indigenous community in Canada comprises: First Nations 58.4% (977,200 persons), Métis (the equivalent of urban Māori) 35.1% (588,000) and Inuit 3.9% (65,000).

About 360,000 live on reserves and territories, including 50,000 in the far north Inuit Nunangat, the majority of those in the semi-autonomous territory of Nunavut.


Indigenous Canadians have experience of isolation - checkpoint strategies to fight disease. During the 1862 Smallpox Epidemic in British Columbia, the Songhees fled en masse from Vancouver Island isolating themselves on a nearby island in Haro Strait. They survived the epidemic with few deaths.

Indigenous leaders are strongly aware that the Spanish Flu and Swine Flu took a significant toll in their communities and that higher levels of poverty, substandard and overcrowded housing, limited healthcare and lower life expectancy make them vulnerable to Covid-19. Racism also affects health. During the Swine Flu, First Nations people were two-thirds of all patients on ventilators in Manitoba. Indigenous leaders requested more resources, they received body bags.

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Isolation and Checkpoints

On 13 March, two days after the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic emergency, the Six Nations of the Grand River, the largest reserve in Canada, closed their borders to all except community members, essential services and staff. Others followed. By 19 March, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs had declared a state of emergency in all 62 of their communities.

In the Far North, semi-autonomous Nunavut closed schools on 16 March and eight days later its borders. In Alberta, the Fort McKay First Nation sealed their borders. On 20 March, the Northwest Territories closed their frontier perimeters. Arctic communities asked members living in cities to return to ancestral lands. The Inuvialuit (Western Inuit) scattered themselves across more than 100 remote camps.

By early April, the Haida First Nations Council in British Columbia had closed their borders along with 82 of the province’s other 204 First Nations, as did 27 of 33 First Nations in Saskatchewan, 30 of 43 in Quebec-Labrador and 18 in north-eastern Ontario.

The Canadian government supported the strategy, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Federal Minister of Indigenous Services, Marc Miller. Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam expressed grave concern for Indigenous communities:

Even a single case is extremely serious. First Nation, Inuit and Métis communities face a higher risk of severe outcomes owing to health inequities and the higher prevalence of underlying medical conditions.


As of 12 June, there were 241 cases on reserves at 67 per100k compared to the overall rate in Canada of 262 per100k. More significantly, the on-reserve rate is nine times lower than for First Nations communities in urban centres. There are no cases in Nunavut, home to the largest Inuit population. Marc Miller attributes this success to the ‘the remote location of Indigenous communities and the aggressive measures taken by their leadership to keep out coronavirus’.

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Indigenous Profile

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There are 6.8 million Indigenous Native Americans in the United States comprising 574 federally recognized Indian Nations. Ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse, they are variously called tribes, nations, bands, pueblos and villages. 350 are located in 35 states south of Canada and 229 in Alaska.



As many as 90% of the Native American population died during flu, measles and smallpox epidemics after first contact with Europeans. Mortality was four times higher among Native Americans during the Spanish Flu. Comorbidities were a significant factor in Indigenous Native Americans being 9.9% of all deaths during Swine Flu despite being only 3% of the population.

The United States has historical non-Indigenous examples of successful isolation – checkpoint strategies during the Spanish Flu. The US Naval Base at Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay and the mining town of Gunnison, Colorado cut off all contact with the outside world allowing no one in or out. Both saw few cases of infection and no deaths.

Isolation and Checkpoints

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The Yurok, Hoopa, Crow, Blackfeet, Chippewa Cree, Cheyenne, Sioux, Salish and Kootenai had checkpoints in place by 31 March. On 8 April, as Covid-19 cases in the United States passed 200,000, the Bureau of Indian Affairs issued an ordinance allowing Indigenous Americans to protect their communities by establishing checkpoints on tribal lands and roads, and, in conjunction with local authorities, on state and federal roads.


As of 13 June, there were 15,241 cases among Indigenous Americans at a rate of 224 per100k. Approximately half of the Indigenous American Covid-19 cases are located on the Navajo Nation (see Navajo Nation below). The overall Indigenous rate not including the Navajo is 120 per100k. Both figures are well below the overall national average for the United States of 653 per100k.



Three areas in the United States, Alaska, South Dakota and the Navajo Nation provide specific insights on the advantage of isolation, racism against successful Indigenous strategies, and the damage Covid-19 causes if it enters Indigenous communities.

Indigenous Profile

Alaska proves how remoteness from urban centres enhances isolation - checkpoint strategy. Alaskan Indians and Alaskan Natives number 110,000 people or 15.4% of the population of Alaska. 55% live in remote communities.


Indigenous Native Alaskans made up more than 82% of all deaths during the Spanish Flu. There is also evidence that where they existed, checkpoints were a significant defence. On the shores of Bering Strait, Teller Mission, a community without checkpoints, lost 90% of its people. Similarly, the village of Wales lost 170 of 250 men

  • Many froze to death, as there was no one to keep the fires going, and others did not have enough food.
  • People ate their dogs and dogs ate people who had been left unburied. Kids were left without parents.   
  • Whole villages disappeared.

A third Bering Strait community, Shishmaref, an island separated by a lagoon from the mainland but accessible over the ice during winter, placed armed guards on the main route into their settlement. There were no deaths.

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Isolation and Checkpoints

By 22 March, more than 50 tribal communities in the state had closed their borders and/or mounted checkpoints. Those accessible by air suspended flights except in emergencies.


As of 13 June, there were 65 positive Indigenous cases of Covid-19 in Alaska. Most are outside of the remote communities. The Indigenous rate of 59 per100k is 60% of that for the state at 99 cases per100k and much less than the 653 cases per100k for the United States.



Indigenous Profile

The Dakota, Lakota and Nakota Sioux are a confederacy spread across five American and three Canadian states. The State of South Dakota has a total population of 884,000 of which 10% or about 90,000 are Indigenous Sioux communities living on nine reservations.

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Isolation and Checkpoints

Concerned at their history of suffering in epidemics, a lack of medical infrastructure and socio-economic health vulnerabilities, the Oglala Lakota Sioux on Pine Ridge Reservation (19,000), and, the Cheyenne River Lakota Sioux on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation (10,000) closed their borders and established checkpoints by 5 April.

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South Dakota Governor, Kristi Noem, a supporter and personal fan of President Donald Trump, threatened legal action against the checkpoints saying they had failed to properly consult with authorities.

Pine Ridge Oglala Sioux President Julian Bear Runner responded by saying the tribes had been in regular consultation with state authorities and Noem is simply trying to over-rule what already exists. Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Frazier reiterates the need for checkpoints, for instance, the closest medical facility is three hours away, and says Noem is risking their lives.

Outcomes and Racism

The Governor’s opposition is twofold. One, she has a personal belief that combating Covid-19 is a matter of individual choice, Noem is one of only eight governors who refused to issue a state-wide stay-at-home order. And two, pre-Covid-19, she opposed Sioux objections to the proposed XL oil pipeline.

Noem’s opposition is senseless racism against an Indigenous People whose strategy is more successful than her own. As of 11 June, the State of South Dakota had 5,604 cases at a rate of 633 per100k. By contrast, Pine Ridge (30) and Cheyenne River (3) have reported just 33 cases at a rate of 113 cases per100k.

The Teton Sioux on the Rosebud Reservation (21,250) established checkpoints later on 13 May. The Teton have 30 cases at a rate of 141 cases per100k. This is higher than the Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge reservations but again lower than the state average.



Indigenous Profile

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The Navajo Nation lies at the four corners of the states of California, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah. With 356,000 members in five agencies covering 110 chapters or bands, the Navajo are the second largest Native American tribe in the United States. About 300,000 people live on the reservation or in towns bordering the nation.

Isolation and Checkpoints

Mounted on 19 March, the Navajo checkpoints were by international standards early. However, it is now clear that Covid-19 was already sweeping across the nation. Two days earlier, the tribe had reported its first case. This would be the first of 12 from a religious gathering held on 7 March, including participants from outside the reservation.

The small supply town of Gallup on the southern border of the reservation was another source. On 15 March, 98 people were arrested on the eve of restrictions on all bars in New Mexico. Held overnight in a combined night shelter - detox centre. 22 cases emerged from that admixture.

The Navajo are fighting hard against a backdrop of poor national level preparation under the Trump administration. Historically their health is underfunded, the government allocates just $3,943 per person for health care for Native Americans through the Indian Health Service, less than half the $8,602 spent by the Bureau of Prisons for health care per prisoner. An $8 million aid package to First Nations has been slow in delivery. Towns on the borders form a permeable border through which the virus crossed. Coupled with 30% of houses not having electricity and 40% without running water or sanitation, this foothold was a disaster waiting to happen. Cases rocketed. Organisations and people are rallying to help, Doctors without Borders, South Korea sending facemasks, and Ireland raising money to return the benevolence of a Choctaw donation from Indian Country to the Irish during the 1847 Famine.

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By 9 June, the Nation has 7,405 cases, including 298 deaths at a rate of 2,468 per 100k, more than 20 times than for all other Indigenous groups in the United States. The Navajo experience is a clear example of the potential devastation facing all marginalised Indigenous communities.



Indigenous Profile

Māori comprise 17% or 850,000 of the New Zealand population comprising more than 100 iwi (tribal groups).


In addition to significant epidemic mortality during colonisation, Māori suffered differentially higher rates of death during the Spanish, Asian and Swine Flu epidemics.

Like Canada and the United States, there are Indigenous and non-Indigenous precedents for the use of checkpoints in New Zealand. During the Spanish Flu, Coromandel sent anyone with a fever trying to enter the district back to Thames. The Coromandel had four deaths; Thames had 51.

At Te Araroa, shotgun-toting locals blocked anyone entering or leaving. In Te Whaiti, local shopkeeper and district Constable Andrew Grant set up a roadblock to the inner Urewera Forest. While Spanish Flu swept through Waimana, Maungapōhatu and Whakatane, the inner Urewera was spared.

A virulent racist New Zealand also used checkpoints against Māori. During the Smallpox Epidemic (1913), European sick were separated and isolated from their healthy family members, their homes disinfected.

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Believing Māori were a ‘filthy’ ‘disease-ridden’ ‘menace to society’ that ‘endangered the safety of hundreds of thousands of Europeans’, Māori settlements were forcibly locked the sick and the healthy together left to their fate. Police and armed Pākehā civilian gangs and vigilantes patrolled roadblocks set up around Māori settlements barring them from shops for supplies and doctors for aid. During a Hamilton City Council discussion about aid for Māori communities, Councillor John McKinnon declared ‘Let them starve’.

Isolation and Checkpoints

As New Zealand entered a Covid-19 Alert Level 4 lockdown on 25 March, Māori opened checkpoints in five of 20 District Health Boards (Northland, Bay of Plenty, Lakes, Te Tai Rāwhiti and Taranaki). Others were set up for shorter periods in Tasman, Rāpaki Pā Canterbury and Thames Coromandel. Some closed after a shift to Level 3 on 27 April, others shut down during a shift to Alert Level 2 on 14 May.

Hone Harawira, an organiser of the checkpoints in Northland, wrote a fabulous article explaining how Māori mounted checkpoints because of differential suffering during previous epidemic - pandemic events, higher rates of the comorbidities Covid-19 ruthlessly exploits and vulnerabilities in poverty, overcrowded housing, racism in health and a milieu of social ills.

Te Tai Rāwhiti checkpoint organiser, Tina Ngata, argued that after more than a century of colonisation, Māori in New Zealand suffer much worse health outcomes than Pākehā-New Zealanders of European descent- and for Ngāti Porou, the figures are even worse:

It is about our extreme vulnerability, all the illnesses that feature in the chronic Covid-19 descriptors feature        highly in our population. We have a worse health profile than the average New Zealand citizen. We are far           more prone to chronic illnesses like diabetes, renal disease and heart disease, and we have more people                with cancer than the rest of the population, we have more people with chronic respiratory illnesses. We can              often go two to three weeks before we will see a doctor come to our region for one day. The nearest city,                  Gisborne, is three hours’ drive away ' there are only six intensive care beds.

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Checkpoint organiser for Te Whānau-a-Apanui, Rawiri Waititi, said ‘the deaths would be catastrophic if Covid-19 came into our iwi (tribe).


The Māori checkpoints did not have the same explicit government support as in Canada, the United States and Australia. There was no national-level declaration supporting them. The checkpoints were begun by local tribes who also started discussions with Police and local authorities. Qualified government support came later.

The absence of declaratory government support meant the Māori checkpoints were the subject of much racism from right-wing groups, politicians and media commentators. Former National Party Opposition Leader, Simon Bridges called them illegal. Heather du Plessis-Allan said they were ‘vigilante’. National MP Mark Mitchell, a former Policeman, accused Māori of being scary and intimidating Pākehā European New Zealanders. Karl DuFresne believed the checkpoints were ‘a calculated challenge to the rule of law’ to establish ‘tribal sovereignty’. Broadcaster Sean Plunket agreed, saying the checkpoints were ‘all about separatism’, and labelled the justifications for them ‘silly’ ‘bullshit’.


The Māori checkpoints were successful. The New Zealand Ministry of Health does not release figures for Māori cases by DHB area. Nevertheless, figures for overall DHB populations with Māori checkpoints have 50% fewer cases at 14.1 per100k than DHBs that did not have Māori checkpoints at 28.2 per100k. In the one area where Māori - European numbers are known, Northland, the per capita rate for Māori is 20% lower than that for non-Māori.

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DHBs that had checkpoints have also on average gone 10 days longer since reporting a new case of Covid-19 than DHBs without Māori checkpoints. The 10-day gap was reached during the middle of May, DHBs with checkpoints had gone 50% longer without new cases (21 days to 31 days).

Extrapolated nationally, the total rate for Māori based on the latest estimate of the population for New Zealand is 15 cases per 100k compared to the national rate of 30 per 100k. The Māori checkpoints also contributed to Māori having the lowest percentage rate of infection by ethnicity in New Zealand.

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Despite a history of death, suffering and racism, the Indigenous Peoples of the white states of Australia, Canada, the United States and New Zealand have never been stronger in fighting an introduced foreign disease. With stronger organisation, greater awareness and astute international connected leaderships, the fight of Indigenous Peoples against disease has been more successful than at any other time since first contact with Europeans.

Isolation and checkpoints strategies were successful in reducing numbers of Covid-19 cases in all four countries. Isolation in remote communities in Australia, Nunavut in Canada and the East Coast of New Zealand has been a distinct advantage. The dire situation of the Navajo Nation stemming from a permeable border in a country whose government anti-Covid-19 campaign is one of the poorest in the Western world is a seminal of what could still unfold across the Indigenous world.

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Depending on what unfolds in the United States, Indigenous peoples in these four former colonies have, for the first time in living memory, suffered less than their European fellows. The checkpoints teach us that extraordinary times require extraordinary leaders to motivate ordinary communities of men, women, and children to perform extraordinary feats of protection and compassion for Indigenous First Peoples communities.


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