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Covid-19 breaks out among vulnerable Indian islanders

Church concerned about Covid-19 cases among dwindling tribal communities in Andaman and Nicobar Islands

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Covid-19 breaks out among vulnerable Indian islanders

Boat Island in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal. Eleven members of the dwindling Great Andamanese tribe have tested positive for the coronavirus, fueling concerns about the safety of indigenous people in the remote archipelago. (Photo: AFP)

India's tribal affairs minister says his department is monitoring the situation after 11 members of the dwindling Great Andamanese tribe in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands tested positive for Covid-19.

“The island administration is aware of the safety of its tribal groups, especially the particularly vulnerable tribal groups [PVTGs],” Arjun Munda said in a tweet on Aug. 29.

Father Visuvasam Selvaraj, administrator of the Diocese of Port Blair, told UCA News that the Great Andamanese, Jarawa, Sentinelese, Onge and Shompen tribal groups are vulnerable, so the government must take care of them.

"They are very few in number and if not protected soon we may lose them. We have no information if members of the Sentinelese and Jarawa tribes are infected with Covid-19 but the latest information from the government says that Great Nicobar island tribals, whose population may be around 50-60, have been infected,” he said.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands reported the pandemic only from the end of May with the arrival of migrant laborers, government officials and members of the armed forces from the mainland.

“We are worried about our people because we have lost two parishioners. Covid-19 is reported in other parishes also but religious places including churches are closed and we are waiting for the government directive to reopen them. Had the government been cautious from the beginning, things would not have gone so bad,” Father Selvaraj added.

Meanwhile, Munda said his ministry is making sure that precautionary measures are being taken to protect vulnerable tribal groups from the pandemic.

“Our officials are regularly in touch with the local administration in Port Blair and we are working for the welfare of the indigenous tribal groups in the islands,” the minister said.

The ministry has stepped up monitoring to ensure zero contact with outsiders to prevent the spread of the contagion among PVTGs. The Great Andamanese tribe who live on Strait Island have around 60 surviving members.

Six community members traveled to the capital last week for work and tested positive for Covid-19, said a health worker who travelled to the island to carry out coronavirus tests.

According to official records, there are six notified scheduled tribes in the archipelago — the Nicobarese, Great Andamanese, Jarawa, Sentinelese, Onge and Shompen.

Barring the Nicobarese, all the others are recognised as PVTGs characterized by a declining population, low level of literacy and pre-agricultural levels of technology and economic backwardness.

Meanwhile, according to the island administration, out of the 11 cases of Covid-19 reported in August, three have recovered, six are in hospital and two in home isolation in Port Blair.

“All the active cases are in good health and under close observation,” the federal tribal ministry said.

The island administration said the Great Andamanese were moved to Strait Island in April after coronavirus tests. Many returned to Port Blair in June after the government started to relax lockdown measures as they are government employees and have state accommodation in Port Blair.

After the outbreak of the pandemic among the Great Andamanese, health officials took samples from Onge people but all tested negative. The administration also plans to conduct random testing of the Jarawa tribe soon.

The two fresh deaths have taken the union territory's coronavirus death toll to 37, a health official said.

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